Wednesday September 23rd, 2015

At halftime on Tuesday night, Wolfsburg led Bayern Munich 1-0. It had defended well, looked dangerous on the counterattack and seemed that it might, for the first time in its history, win at Bayern. Pep Guardiola made two changes at the break, bringing on Javi Martinez for Juan Bernat and Robert Lewandowski for Thiago Alcantara.

Six minutes later, Lewandowski equalized, rolling in a half-blocked shot at the back post. A minute later, surging through the middle, he dispatched a fierce low shot into the bottom corner from just outside the box. Three minutes after that, he hit the post, then drew a save from Diego Benaglio and then, at the third attempt, completed his hat trick. Two minutes after that, he rammed in a volley at slightly higher than waist height, contorting superbly to keep his weight over the ball. And two minutes after that, hooking the ball from behind him, he lashed in a side volley from the edge of the box. Five goals, three of them in stunning quality, in the space of nine minutes.

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​Guardiola clutched his face in disbelief. Players laughed at the improbability of it all. With a display of awareness and finishing, Lewandowski had pretty much single-handed turned a game that might have been a defeat into a rout.

Football is a team game, so much so that the great Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi could claim that the players themselves were less important than the coalitions between them, but every now and again an individual has a game in which it seems to become him against the opponent.

Here are five of the best examples before Lewandowski:

Stanley Matthews, Blackpool 

Blackpool 4, Bolton 3; FA Cup final; Wembley Stadium, London; May 2, 1953

In England, at least, Matthews was accepted at the greatest player in the world, an old-fashioned dribbler whose one trick, feinting inside and going out, defenders seemed to find impossible to counter. By 1953 he was 38 and it seemed he might end his career without ever winning a trophy. Blackpool had lost in the 1948 and 1951 FA Cup finals and midway through the second half, it was 3-1 down.

But the Bolton left half, Eric Bell, had damaged a hamstring and that meant he couldn’t protect the left back, Ralph Banks, as he might have liked. On 68 minutes, Matthews beat Banks and crossed for Stan Mortensen to pull one back. Mortensen drive in a free kick to complete his hat trick and level with two minutes to go and then, in injury time, Matthews beat Banks again and crossed for Bill Perry to fire in the winner. Mortensen had scored three, but it was Matthews’s final.

Pele, Santos

Boca Juniors 1, Santos 2; Copa Libertadores final, second leg; La Bombonera, Buenos Aires; September 11, 1963

Santos had beaten Penarol to win its first Libertadores the previous season and was rapidly on its way to being recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest teams. Looking to retain the title, Santos beat Boca Juniors 3-2 at the Maracana, but it was in the away leg that Pele, then 22 and probably at his peak, really shone. He was unstoppable, despite suffering a series of brutal challenges, one of which managed to divest him of his shorts.

“His technique was awesome,” said Boca left back Silvio Marzolini. “His physical power, too: he would practically stay suspended when he jumped.”

Sanfilippo pounced as a cross was half-cleared in the first minute of the second half to put Boca ahead. Four minutes later, though, the Boca keeper Nestor Errea scuffed a goal kick to the right-winger Dorval. He slotted the ball inside to Pele, who turned, slipped by Orlando and jabbed a perfectly weighted pass to Coutinho to finish at the near post with the outside of his right foot. Then, with eight minutes remaining, Pele nutmegged Orlando on the edge of the area and scored with a low shot that, unfortunately for the aesthetic, bobbled in off Errea’s shin but delivered Santos its title repeat.

George Best, Manchester United

Benfica 1, Manchester United 5; European Cup quarterfinal second leg; Estadio da Luz, Lisbon; March 9, 1966

United, building again after the Munich air crash tragedy, had won the league in 1965 and beginning to dream again of European triumph. A 3-2 home win over Benfica in the first leg of the quarterfinal, though, didn’t seem like it would be enough, particularly with United haunted by memories of a 5-1 defeat in Lisbon against Sporting two years earlier. Matt Busby, the manager, told his side to keep things tight early on and look to calm the packed crowd.

Best, still only 20 and entering the most productive two years of his career, ignored him. As the Times correspondent Geoffrey Green wrote, "he set a new, almost unexplored beat. The rest caught his mood, and their refined actions flowed, unbelievably courtly and delicate–yet deadly."

Six minutes in, Bobby Charlton was fouled, Tony Dunne took the free kick and Best headed in. Seven minutes later, David Herd headed back an Alec Steney clearance for Best, who glided through three challenges and slipped the ball in. Two minutes later, John Connelly added a third and United was on the way to a stunning win. Best had been elevated to another level. The following morning, as he walked along the beach at Estoril, as he noted in his autobiography, "every bikini on the beach wanted my autograph." He bought a sombrero, wore it on the plane back and emerged in Manchester to be hailed, with linguistic vagueness, "el Beatle." He had embarked on the descent into celebrity.

United lost to Partizan in the semifinal, but two years later had its European victory, Best excelling again in a 4-1 win over Benfica in the final.

Diego Maradona, Argentina

Argentina 2, Belgium 0; World Cup semifinal; Estadio Azteca, Mexico City; June 15, 1986

It was only in the quarterfinal with the 2-1 victory over England that Carlos Bilardo’s Argentina really exploded. Diego Maradona scored twice in that game, the "Hand of God" goal and the brilliant second, but it was in the semifinal that he confirmed this was to be his tournament.

Like England, Belgium could only hold out until just after halftime. Jorge Burruchaga drifted in from the right and slipped a pass into the path of Maradona as he darted into the box. Goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff came off his line and Maradona calmly stabbed the ball over him with the outside of his left foot.

Twelve minutes later, he added a second of dazzling brilliance. Picking the ball up 40 yards from goal, he had a phalanx of three defenders in front of him and another, Eric Gerets, 10 yards behind them. He skipped through the first three and surged left of Gerets, before hooking his finish back across Pfaff. His momentum almost caused him to fall over, but, arm windmilling, his balance extraordinary, he stayed up to wheel away and take the congratulations of his teammates.

David Beckham, England

England 2, Greece 2; World Cup qualifier; Old Trafford, Manchester, England; October 5, 2001

It’s a game whose memory has been slightly curdled by memories of what happened afterward, that in hindsight looks far less significant than it felt at the time. England had gone to Munich and beaten Germany 5-1, giving fresh impetus to a qualifying campaign that had been in trouble after a 1-0 defeat to Germany in the final game before Wembley, a match that led to Kevin Keegan’s resignation as manager. Suddenly, under Sven-Goran Eriksson, there was fresh hope.

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Except, England stuttered. It labored to a 2-0 win over Albania, which meant that from its final game it needed to match at home to Greece the result Germany achieved at home to Finland. England fell behind to an Angelo Charisteas goal after 36 minutes. Teddy Sheringham tied it after 68 minutes, but Greece immediately scored again, through Themistoklis Nikolaidis. Germany and Finland were drawing 0-0. England needed at least one more.

Beckham was nominally playing on the right, but suddenly he was everywhere, surging forward, cajoling and encouraging. Again and again England won free kicks within range. Again and again he fired just over or wide or was denied by goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis. Finally, deep into injury time, with Germany’s game finished in a draw, Beckham whipped a 25-yarder into the corner and England was through. He broke a metatarsal before the World Cup, though, wasn’t fully fit and England limped out in the quarterfinal. Worse, Beckham seemed to become convinced after that that he could win every game on his own and for a long time played without positional discipline.

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