Messi, Juninho, Ronaldo: Who are the greatest free-kick takers of the modern era?

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Lionel Messi is the best free-kick taker in the world. There, we said it.

The Barcelona superstar scored the latest spectacular strike of his set-piece highlight reel this week, getting proceedings underway during the 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao in La Liga.

Messi is now within one free-kick strike of matching his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo and has scored 13 more efforts in Europe's top five leagues than any other player over the last five seasons.

Messi's dazzling free-kick

However, what makes his latest free-kick goal all the more incredible is that Bilbao were the latest team facing Barcelona to deploy special tactics in order to stop Messi.

But even with a player on the line and one lying beneath the wall, they could do nothing to stop arguably the greatest free-kick taker that the beautiful game has ever seen.

Now, that statement alone is somewhat controversial and we couldn't resist using Messi's latest moment of brilliance as an excuse to reflect on the best free-kick takers the sport has produced.

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Greatest free-kick takers ever

In order to achieve that, we've turned to the 'Free-Kick Specialists Tier List' template on Tiermaker, ranking some of the greatest set-piece wizards into tiers ranging from 'never again' to 'GOAT'.

It's worth noting that only players from the modern era are included, so no Pele or Diego Maradona, while we personally would have included the likes of Shunsuke Nakamura and Rogerio Ceni regardless.

But you can't win them all and disclaimers aside, you can check out how we ranked the nominees down below:

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Never again

Robert Huth

I bet you're wondering why Huth is even here, aren't you? No, fear not, you're blissfully unaware of a secret talent within the ex-Chelsea man, rather that this incredible clip meant the creator couldn't resist including him.

Solid

Mario Balotelli

Memphis Depay

James Maddison

David Alaba

Gylfi Sigurdsson

Morten Gamst Pedersen

Truth be told, there's not a whole lot to report here other than these players' stats just don't compare to the legends and contemporary wizards to come as far as their free-kick lethality is concerned.

Sigurdsson probably has the best free-kick CV of the bunch, but with no successful attempts since his Swansea City days, even his statistics can't rescue him from the lowest of the serious tiers.

And at the other end of the spectrum, Balotelli is clinging on for dear life because, give or take a flurry of four conversions for AC Milan in 2013/14, his free-kick taking days at the top level seem to be dead and buried.

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Overrated

Didier Drogba

Cristiano Ronaldo

Steven Gerrard

Wayne Rooney

Josip Ilicic

With just one free-kick goal in club football since December 2017, there's only so much we can allow Ronaldo's decent career tally to paper over the cracks of his abominable recent record.

What do Gerrard, Rooney and Drogba have in common when it comes to free-kicks? They only ever scored seven of them in the Premier League despite being hyped as some of the competition's greatest ever takers.

Meanwhile, we've got no absolutely idea how Ilicic has managed to bribe his way onto the list with only seven free-kick goals in his career, according to Transfermarkt

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Great

Kevin De Bruyne

Gareth Bale

Miralem Pjanic

Thierry Henry

Gianfranco Zola

As far as current players are concerned, you'd needn't look further than De Bruyne, Bale and Pjanic when it comes to free-kick quality, even if their conversion rates have gone stale recently.

But with the exception of a few set-piece freaks and given they're not hyped beyond their quality, we think the Manchester City, Spurs and Barcelona stars hold their own against the legends around them.

Nevertheless, Henry and Zola are certainly more secure in the mid-to-upper tier with only a member of our GOAT level having scored more free-kicks in Premier League history than the legendary duo.

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Underrated

Juan Mata

Sebastian Larsson

Christian Eriksen

There's not too much to say here other than three of the most prolific free-kick scorers in Premier League history simply don't get the credit they deserve with Mata, in particular, boasting a superb conversion rate.

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World-class

Lionel Messi

James Ward-Prowse

Ronaldinho

Andrea Pirlo

Alessandro Del Piero

Roberto Carlos

Ok, ok, it might seem bonkers that Ward-Prowse is rubbing shoulders with Messi, but we're going on current form for the contemporary players and the Southampton star has already scored four(!!!) free-kicks this season.

That, for the record, is double that of Messi's tally and for our money, Ward-Prowse would be right up there in terms of unerring reliability in the way you'd expect from a penalty.

Otherwise, I think Ronaldinho, Pirlo and Del Piero speak for themselves as some of the finest free-kick takers of all-time without ever really laying claim to the status of 'greatest ever'.

And yes, Carlos was a little more haphazard than compilation videos would have you believe, but we didn't have the heart to completely jettison the scorer of some of the most outrageous free-kicks ever.

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GOAT 

Juninho Pernambucano

David Beckham

Siniša Mihajlović

Are we cheating by having three GOATs? Perhaps, but these three, regardless of the statistics, are the greatest players to ever stand over a dead ball in the modern era.

Juninho holds the world record with an astonishing 77 strikes, Mihajlović boasts the high watermark in Serie A, as well as scoring a free-kick hat-trick, while Beckham converted set-pieces like clockwork.

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Full graphic

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Who is the GOAT?

Are we bang on the money? Are we miles wide of the mark? Either way, there's always going to be a difference in opinion when you're ranking football legends on just one aspect of their game.

Besides, I can already sense the social media eruption that the mere premise of me placing Ward-Prowse alongside Messi and Ronaldinho is going to cause.

But before you completely write me off as a lunatic, riddle me this: if it was the last minute of a game that you needed to win to avoid death and you won a free-kick with the scores level - who would you pick to take it?

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Call me crazy, but good old Jamie boy would be near the top of my list.

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