Top five: Match-winning volleys from the modern era

There are many, many ways to score great goals.

You could resort to excellent build-up play from the team as a whole, like the peerless Brazilian squad of 1970 did against Italy in the final of the World Cup in Mexico, in a glorious move involving Rivelino, Jairzinho and Pele that allowed marauding full-back Carlos Alberto to score what is considered to be the greatest goal ever.

You could score sensational free-kicks, like Ronaldinho did against England in 2002; take off on long, mazy runs past five players like Diego Maradona did (against against the Three Lions) in 1986, or rifle in ferocious long-range goals like Andres Iniesta’s crucial last minute equaliser in the second leg of the semi-final clash against Chelsea in the 2008-09 Champions League campaign.

Tap-ins, headers, close-range finishes, curling efforts from out wide, back-heeled goals a la Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo, and even goals scored using one’s shoulder (courtesy Mario Balotelli); there are many ways to score goals ranging from the ordinary to the unforgettable, the simple to the technically ingenious.

However, it is probably fair to say that there are very few sights in football that are as reminiscent of and inextricably linked with the bulging of the back of the net than that of a player lining up to take a volley from 20 or 30 yards out.

Over the years, we have seen so many great instances of players meeting a ball in the air with the perfect body position – their knee lifted, body leaning forward and eyes focused on the ball – and making the perfect contact, sending the ball rocketing past keepers’ outstretched arms into the back of the net.

It seems like too tall an order to select five of the many outstanding volleyed goals we’ve seen over the last 13 years, just based on the excellence in the technique involved in their execution.

That is exactly what this article has attempted to do. Having gone through the annals that record the greatest goals ever scored, we have arrived at a definitive list of the five most important volleyed goals of the 21st century.

Oh, before we start, just one thing I’d like to confirm: for all the footballing connoisseurs reading this, my definition of a “volleyed goal” as a criterion for forming this list was just this: the ball had to be in the air when struck (struck with some amount of venom, and not placed into the back of the net like Robert Pires’ incredible goal against Aston Villa).

I hope this is in keeping with your understanding of the same.

5) STEVEN GERRARD, LIVERPOOL VS OLYMPIAKOS

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 Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool side went into their final game of the Group stages of the Champions League needing to beat Rivaldo’s Olympiakos side by at least two goals to pip them to second position in the group table and ensure qualification for the knockout rounds.

They started the game well, getting three corners in the first two minutes, even having a goal disallowed, but Olympiakos slowly grew into the game, and took the lead on 26 minutes via a beautiful free-kick from the magical Rivaldo.

Needing three goals, Benitez bought on substitutes Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor who both scored in the second half (on 47 and 81 minutes respectively) to give Liverpool a 2-1 lead.

The clock read 85 minutes, and Liverpool, having been denied two penalty appeals following Mellor’s goal, still needed a third goal to ensure progress.

In a twist in the script that only the man who would later in his career come to be called Captain Fantastic could have provided, Steven Gerrard stepped up to the plate and delivered in spectacular style.

After a decent spell of possession from a throw-in on the left flank, a ball was floated into the box, and Mellor headed the ball back out towards the edge of the penalty area with a deft cushioned touch.

The ball seemed to have fallen into no man’s land, but Steven Gerrard timed his lung-busting run to perfection to meet the ball on the bounce, and fired an unstoppable volley into the bottom corner of the Olympiakos goal.

The goal was brilliant not just for the ferocity with which the Liverpool number eight had struck the ball, but for the circumstances under which Gerrard had pulled it out of his hat.

It was Gerrard’s greatest moment in a Liverpool shirt at that time, and – having stood the test of time over the last few years – will continue to be an enduring memory of the glorious 2004-05 European campaign for Liverpool fans around the world.

4) ANDRES INIESTA, SPAIN VS NETHERLANDS

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 11:  Andres Iniesta of Spain scores the winning goal during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

 Andres Iniesta has won everything there is to win for a Spanish footballer.

Over the course of his illustrious career, he has amassed a trophy collection that includes six La Ligas, two Copa del Reys, five Spanish Supercups, two UEFA Supercups, two FIFA Club World Cups and three UEFA Champions League titles, not to mention the two European Championships he won with the Spanish national team.

The diminutive Spaniard has wowed millions with his fleet-footed skills and ethereal ability with a football, and has earned comparisons with the legendary Zinedine Zidane and Michael Laudrup.

However, the greatest achievement of his career so far is undoubtedly the goal he scored in the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg to give Spain her first ever World Cup title.

And what a goal it was.

After 90 minutes of not being able to find a way past a well-organised and physically imposing Dutch defence despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession, Vicente del Bosque’s Spanish team entered extra-time knowing that the game would likely be decided by a single goal, and set about trying to exploit any cracks in the Dutch back four.

The tides would turn in their favour as John Heitinga was sent off in the 109th minute of a game that should have been settled in normal time by Arjen Robben who was twice put clean through against Iker Casillas.

Iniesta took his shirt off as he sprinted to the cameras, revealing a message for the deceased Dani Jarque as his team-mates engulfed him in celebration of what they all knew was the decisive goal of the match, and possibly the most important goal in the history of Spanish football.

That goal will be remembered not only for the fact that Iniesta managed to fire the ball into the back of the net despite being under immense pressure in the penalty area, but because it well and truly confirmed Spain’s status as the best footballing nation in the world, and made Spain the first country to be European and World champions simultaneously since Zidane’s France side of 1998 and 2000.

3) PAUL SCHOLES, MANCHESTER UNITED VS BARCELONA

Manchester United v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final

Paul Scholes is widely considered to be one of the greatest midfielders of his time, and it is not surprising that the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Pep Guardiola and Xavi Hernandez have been effusive in their praise for the Ginger Assassin over the years.

He was one of the greatest passers of the ball the world has ever seen, and was known for his unparalleled ability to control the pace and direction of a game and to score goals of the utmost importance when he was most needed.

Scholes will be remembered for his God-given ability on the pitch and exemplary behaviour off it, and will always be a legend at Old Trafford.

It is difficult to pick out the greatest moment from a career that spanned 19 years and saw the man win so many trophies and accolades, but if one were pushed to select the definitive Paul Scholes moment, it would have to be the belter he scored against Barcelona in the second leg of the semifinal of the 2007-08 Champions League campaign.

The 2007-08 season hadn’t been the best one for Scholes, and he made just 34 appearances all season (he suffered ligament damage and missed three months of the campaign), scoring just two goals. One of them just happened to take United through to the final of the Champions League.

And it was a goal to remember!

A Cristiano Ronaldo run down the left of the pitch was halted by right-back Gianluca Zambrotta, but the Italian’s attempt at a clearance fell to Scholes, who took a touch to set himself him and whacked the ball with the outside of his right boot to send it flying into the top corner.

United held on to the 1-0 lead against the likes of Messi, Henry and Xavi, and went on to win the final against Chelsea.

While Cristiano Ronaldo would go on to receive all the praise for United’s double-winning season, Paul Scholes’ stunner against Barcelona was undoubtedly the most important goal of the club’s season.

2) STEVEN GERRARD, LIVERPOOL VS WEST HAM

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 When Steven Gerrard decides to hang up his boots, he will be remembered as one of England’s greatest ever players, a player with nearly-unheard of levels of loyalty to his club, and a great ambassador for modern football.

People will look back at his tenure as captain of Liverpool Football Club and speak in hushed tones of his goal against Olympiakos, the way he hauled Liverpool back from 3-0 down against Milan to lift the Champions League title in 2005 and the way he nearly inspired the club to Premier League glory in 2009.

However, if there was ever one performance of Gerrard’s that deserves to be remembered forever, it has to be his display in the FA Cup final in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, against West Ham in 2006.

The match that will forever be referred to as “The Gerrard Final” saw West Ham take a two-goal lead in the first half. Gerrard lofted a superb cross-field ball for Djibril Cisse to claw one back, before the man himself rifled a superb volley in from inside the penalty area (a goal that almost made it to the top-five!) early in the second half.

2-2, game on.

Nine minutes later, a freak goal from Paul Konchesky saw West Ham take the lead again, leaving Liverpool needing another goal to take the match into extra time. Liverpool continued to knock on the door, but even at 90 minutes, the scoreboard read West Ham 3-2 Liverpool.

A long ball into the West Ham box saw the ball headed out, and Gerrard, who was suffering from intense cramps by this time, saw the ball bounce perfectly for him. Despite being closer the halfline than the goal, he went for the volley, and what happened next sent each of the 71,140 fans in the stadium into either shock or ecstasy, depending on their allegiance that day.

Gerrard has since said that he only took on the shot because he was too tired and pained by cramps to take a touch and play a long ball.

After repeatedly looking at videos of his breathtaking 30-yard volley, one can only wonder what he would have been capable had he been fully fit. Or maybe the goal was one of those that takes a moment of inspiration, and not physical fitness.

Either way, you can be sure that you won’t see a better volley very often. It was a goal that only comes around once in a generation, and you would have to be touched in the head to not have your jaw drop in awe of Gerrard’s second goal that night.

Of course, this goal wasn’t theoretically the game-winner, as Liverpool went on to win via penalties, but try telling a Liverpool fan that it wasn’t a great, great goal, and one of supreme importance!

1) ZINEDINE ZIDANE, REAL MADRID VS BAYER LEVERKUSEN

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 And now for the best volleyed goal of the 21st century.

Any football fan will tell you that the two of the three greatest goals ever scored were Carlos Alberto’s goal against Italy in the final of the 1970 World Cup (due to the magnificent build-up that led to the goal) and Maradona’s weaving, penetrating, destructive run in the 1986 World Cup game against England.

The third goal in this unofficial list, in my humble opinion, was also the greatest volleyed goal of the 21st century.

It was scored by–again, just my humble opinion–the greatest European footballer of all time, Zinedine Zidane, on the stroke of halftime in the final of the UEFA Champions League 2001-02 played between Zidane’s Real Madrid and Mikael Ballack’s Bayern Leverkusen on May 15, 2002.

Zinedine Zidane was just the unique kind of footballer who made it look like everything he did on a football pitch was the epitome of aesthetic grace and footballing perfection.

It always seemed like the player, fondly christened “Zizou” by the millions who worshipped him, had a direct line of access to the footballing heavens, one which he used to pluck moments of sheer genius from thin air, time and again.

His goal against Bayer Leverkusen was the perfect example of this ability he had of being able to do things that no other player on the pitch would have deemed possible, let alone remotely probable.

As the ball traced a glorious arc into the night sky of Glasgow, Zidane lurked outside the penalty area. He saw the ball fast approaching him. He glanced up at his immediate surroundings, establishing that Mikael Ballack would not get to him in time to impede his glorious machinations.

Realising that his shifting his body to allow the ball to fall onto his right foot would mean that he would have his back to the dropping ball, he instead resorted to hit it with his weaker left foot.

As the ball dropped, his eagle-like eyes unerringly following its path, he shifted his feet in a motion so fluidly subtle you wouldn’t have noticed it. As he prepared his body for the shot, he was more a dancer in full song than a footballer, more an artist than an athlete.

The ball seemed to slow down as it approached his left foot, almost timing itself to be hit by him. The image of Zidane connecting with the ball remains one of the most iconic images in the history of football, right up there with Pele celebrating in Jairzinho’s arms after scoring the first goal of the 1970 World Cup final and Maradona confronting six Belgian defenders during the 1982 World Cup.

As soon as the ball left Zidane’s left boot, you knew that it was going to find a way past Hans-Jorg Butt; the Gods would have had it no other way.

There was just a moment of absolute silence, even as the ball hit the back of the net, as those in attendance at Hampden Park took in the reality of what they’d just had the privilege of witnessing.

“Did that really happen? Did he really score? What just happened?”

And then the crowd rose to their feet as one, in a deafening salute to the man on the pitch who had graced the game with a moment of pure genius. Even now, 11 years after that goal was scored, people still wonder how Zidane scored it. Even now, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end when I watch replays of the goal.

It will forever remain the greatest moment in the history of Champions League football, and possibly the history of the The Beautiful Game itself.

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