UEFA Champions League
Best of the best
Was Mario Mandžukić’s jaw-dropping, gravity-defying goal in the 2017 final the greatest ever scored on European football’s greatest stage? For Graham Hunter, trying to answer that was almost as challenging as the Croatian’s goal itself

This article was first published in the official 2018 UEFA Champions League final programme. Buy the print programme here or access the free digital version here.

There have been 62 European Cup finals before tonight’s decider in Kyiv and the best goal scored in any of them was Mario Mandžukić’s equaliser for Juventus against Real Madrid CF in Cardiff last year. There. I’ve said it. What a relief.

Picture it, please. Trailing 1-0, Juventus push back. Leonardo Bonucci’s long, searching right-to-left ball drops out of the night sky into the path of Alex Sandro. The Brazilian has work to do. He’s at full stretch, there’s no natural pass and Marcelo is racing back to pounce on the slightest slip. His left-footed volley is perfection. Sweet balance, sweet timing and it arcs back towards Gonzalo Higuaín about 15m away at the edge of Madrid’s penalty box.

So far, the move has been pretty, but there’s no threat. Really, you’d swear. The Argentinian takes the Brazilian’s volley on his chest, kills the velocity. Then he makes the top of his boot a flat cushion to dolly the ball up for Mandžukić to do with it what he will.

It’s the kind of fun demonstration of technique and ‘love of the ball’ you often see when a group of players play pressure-free ‘keepy-uppy’ in dressing-room videos.

But this has the potential to become the key moment of each of their careers. The most coveted club prize … 1-0 behind to the ‘masters’ of this tournament … hundreds of millions watching around the globe.

The tall Croat leaps like a ballet dancer mid-Swan Lake and uses his chest to just dab the ball into the air and leave it dropping where he wants. As he swivels a half-turn right to left, things get ultra-crowded on the edge of Madrid’s penalty area. By the time Mandžukić is locked and loaded, both Dani Carvajal and Casemiro are touch-tight to him. Catenaccio tight.

But he hooks the ball with his right boot, back over his head and in a perfect arc, which tells anyone watching, within split seconds, that Keylor Navas, despite being perfectly positioned, is in trouble. So it proves, with the Costa Rican clawing at thin air as Mandžukić’s brilliant anarchic-creative moment leaves us all roaring with disbelief – and makes the scoreline 1-1.

Zinédine Zidane waits for the ball to
drop before unleashing a stunning left-footed volley in the 2002 final

OK, OK, let’s pause for a moment. I know full well that if you were to canvas the football world right this instant, there’s a very good chance that, despite my best attempt to capture the beauty, daring and glory of that Juventus goal last year, it would be an ex-Juve player’s winning volley for Madrid at Hampden in 2002 that would probably soar to the top of any ‘Best goal in a European Cup final’ poll.

Zinédine Zidane was watching Mandžukić’s heroics from the touchline a year ago in Cardiff, no doubt groaning in his role as Madrid coach, but his mind wouldn’t have spared a millisecond’s thought for whether his effort to win that final against Bayer 04 Leverkusen might be eclipsed.

What about you? Are you in the sizeable camp that says that in any beauty parade of great goals (and there have been 170 in total since the first final between Madrid and Stade de Reims back in 1956) the primus inter pares, the first among equals, MUST come in a victory? That a goal, however beautiful, is relegated to the second shelf unless it is scored by the team that lifts ‘the cup with the big ears’?

That’s part of the adoration felt for Zizou’s goal. Not only did it bring the majestic Frenchman his first and only winner’s medal as a player in this magical tournament, but it came at the historic venue in Glasgow where Madrid had transfixed the world with their 7-3 victory against Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960.

His technique was sublime, it subdued a lively and increasingly dangerous Leverkusen side, and he gilded the final with more than just a goal of soaring majesty – it was the winner. However, if that’s your position, then are you really willing to discard Hernán Crespo’s extraordinary second against Liverpool FC to put AC Milan 3-0 up in the 2005 showpiece?

Less than a minute to half-time, Kaká’s turn leaves Steven Gerrard lost, the Brazilian takes a couple of Olympic-speed strides forward and unleashes a pass so clever, so beautifully designed, that it bisects Sami Hyypiä and the fully extended Jamie Carragher from 30m away so that the Argentinian striker can take the assist in his stride and delicately dink it past Jerzy Dudek.

The precision of Galileo, the vision of a hawk and the timing of a Swiss watch.

But you want winners, right?

Close your eyes and visualise, or dip into the UEFA.com website to refresh your memory, because there is an array of important goals shimmering with intelligence, beauty and creativity.

Kenny Dalglish lights up the 1978 decider by
firing Liverpool to victory against Club Brugge

How about these two? Xavi Hernández’s glorious right-wing cross, which drops between the towering presence of Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand for the smallest man on the pitch, Lionel Messi, to deftly head in for FC Barcelona against Manchester United FC in the Rome final of 2009 –completely against type for a team addicted to the pass-pass-pass movement of short, technical, positional possession. Or Sergio Ramos’s ultimate it’s-not-over-until-I-say-so goal in Lisbon five years later?

A physically imposing defender with a huge propensity for dramatic moments rescuing a Madrid-derby European Cup final with, literally, a handful of seconds left… versus a diminutive genius like Messi who almost never scores with his head sealing a match with a moment of impudent daring.

Which gets your vote?

Then there’s the delve further back into history. Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck saving his home-town club, FC Bayern München, in the 120th minute of the 1974 final, which appeared lost following Luis ‘The Wise Man of Hortaleza’ Aragonés’s lovely free-kick goal for Club Atlético de Madrid.

Does that do it for you?

The astonishing defiance of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s last-gasp winner at the Camp Nou in 1999 as Bayern’s lead evaporated in a couple of sensational minutes and Manchester United sealed the treble?

The candidates queue up.

A helpless Jerzy Dudek watches the ball after Hernán
Crespo’s stylish finish for Milan in 2005

Me? I’ve always thought that the balance and timing of Graeme Souness’s subtle through ball for Kenny Dalglish to top off his debut Liverpool season with the European Cup winning-goal against Club Brugge KV at Wembley in 1978 was very special. As was King Kenny’s finish.

Speaking about Wembley, how on earth did Sir Bobby Charlton run on to Brian Kidd’s right-wing cross and strike it off his own right foot across the face of SL Benfica keeper José Henrique and into the far top corner during  the 1968 final? Another candidate?

Romantics will recall Stevie Chalmers’ winner for Celtic FC against previously unbeaten FC Internazionale Milano to make Jock Stein’s side the first British champions of Europe in 1967, or perhaps Ronald Koeman’s howitzer shot to defeat UC Sampdoria in extra time in 1992 (again at Wembley).

A stunning strike, but also Barcelona’s first ever ‘we are the champions’ moment – and a Johan Cruyff-inspired victory that, according  to every Catalan player who later lifted this famous trophy, ended the inferiority complex dogging the Camp Nou club as Madrid racked up triumph after triumph.

While certain teams dominated the European Cup, they provided stellar memories – take John Robertson’s perfectly struck, perfectly placed drive against Hamburger SV to retain the title for Nottingham Forest FC at the Bernabéu in 1980. The greatest European Cup final goal because of the football ‘miracle’ it prolonged?

AC Milan not only played in five finals between 1989 and 1995, winning three of them, but gifted us a glut of goals.

Perhaps the only thing ‘wrong’ with Ruud Gullit’s glue-like control and Mike Tyson-powerful finish for his second against FC Steaua Bucureşti during their 1989 victory, for it was a truly magnificent goal, was that it was eclipsed five years later by the genius called Dejan Savićević.

"HIS TECHNIQUE WAS SUBLIME, IT SUBDUED A LIVELY AND INCREASINGLY DANGEROUS LEVERKUSEN SIDE, AND HE GILDED THE FINAL WITH MORE THAN JUST A GOAL OF SOARING MAJESTY - IT WAS THE WINNER"

How, I beg you to explain to me, did the brilliant Montenegrin even visualise using his left foot to lob Andoni Zubizarreta from the far-left edge of the Basque’s penalty box, let alone execute the skill to put Milan 3-0 up against Barça in Athens?

Answers on a postcard, please. It defies belief.

But speaking of dynasties, like that of Liverpool across the 1970s and 1980s, and Ajax’s hat-trick of trophies, which segued directly into total Bavarian control, some of us not only loved to see the occasional underdog snarl back – but loved it if the unfancied combatant showed impishness too.

Some of you may not be old enough to have seen Rabah Madjer nonchalantly back-heeling FC Porto level in the 1987 final against Bayern with only 13 minutes left. The Algerian’s celebrations thereafter were theatrical, and a perfect contrast with the Antarctic sang-froid he had showed to half-volley the ball past Hans Dieter-Flick on the Bayern goal line. Back turned to the goal frame, Madjer didn’t even deign to look at his opponent’s positioning before scoring with outrageous elan.

Obviously, I accept, some of you will be muttering about no mention for the dart of Predrag Mijatović in 1998, Lars Ricken the year before as Borussia Dortmund shocked the world and, objectively, you could argue a case for two or three of the net-busters in the eight-goal 1962 thriller when Benfica defeated Madrid 5-3.

The fact is that, like Video Assistant Referee technology has proven, people love to argue.

We all see football through our own prism.

There will always be goals, because of their majesty, their moment, their meaning, which bring us together to say: “Perhaps THIS was the best ever?”

And if you leave UEFA Champions League finals aside, did Cristiano Ronaldo score THE great goal of this competition with his apparently unfeasible leap and overhead kick in Turin during the quarter-finals this season?

So, will there ever be, as long as this mighty competition lives and breathes historic fame on to a goalscorer, ONE supreme strike that unites us all?

No chance. Beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder. And thank goodness for that.

 

Five great final goals

Mario Mandžukić Juventus, 2017

After controlling the ball with his chest, Mandžukić leapt into the air and buried an outrageous overhead kick. 


Zinédine Zidane Real Madrid, 2002

Jaws dropped as Zidane met Roberto Carlos’s looping cross with an immaculate left-footed volley.


Hernán Crespo Milan, 2005

Kaká’s visionary through ball and Crespo’s cool finish made for a counterattacking masterclass.


Dejan Savićević Real Madrid, 1994

In just two touches, Madrid’s No10 dispossessed a defender and lobbed in from an impossible angle.


Rabah Madjer Porto, 1987

The Algerian international’s back-heeled flick from close range was audacious, composed and devastating.

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UEFA Champions League
Best of the best
Was Mario Mandžukić’s jaw-dropping, gravity-defying goal in the 2017 final the greatest ever scored on European football’s greatest stage? For Graham Hunter, trying to answer that was almost as challenging as the Croatian’s goal itself
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