As Radamel Falcao delicately lifted the ball over Willy Caballero, the travelling band of Monaco fans in the corner of The Etihad erupted with joy. They were far from the only ones overwhelmed by that finish; his exquisite piece of skill bringing gasps and stunned silences from spectators all over the world. Even amidst the madness going on around him that night in a game that’ll go down as one the most memorable in Champions League history, it was a perfect, scarcely believable demonstration of composure on the biggest stage of club football.
“There’s a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.” Doing the unthinkable in front of goal, defying the odds and leaving onlookers to question exactly what’s real or not in the most ordinary of circumstances, is a thing that El Tigre’s always had a penchant for. Give him the ball anywhere inside the box when he’s at his best and the likelihood is that he’ll somehow find the back of the net.
But even magical realism has its limits. And until now it’s been a strange last few years for the Colombian. After two magnificent seasons at Atlético Madrid, where he firmly established himself as one of the truly elite strikers on the planet, a combination of the club’s weak financial position and his own agent meant Falcao was forced into saying an emotional goodbye. Upon leaving he called his time there “the best years of [his] career” – and with three trophies and 70 goals to his name in that short period it would be tough to disagree.
A big-money move to Monaco followed, and while he had a decent start to life in Ligue 1 it went downhill relatively quickly. His season was disrupted by the severe ACL injury he picked up in January 2014, resulting in him missing not only the remainder of the club season but the World Cup in the summer as well. That was a big setback for him, both physically and mentally. For the following two years, which he spent on rather dismal loan spells at Man Utd and Chelsea in the Premier League, he was never quite the same.
Fortunately, his return to Monaco this campaign has seen things pick up considerably again. Playing upfront in Leonardo Jardim’s fluid, free-scoring side has really suited his style, and he’s been able to find the back of the net just as regularly as ever before. 16 goals in just 16 league starts and six substitute appearances says all you need to know about his form. He’s also averaging a goal per game in the Champions League too, that dink over Caballero completing his brace for the evening in Manchester and thus adding a couple more to his tally for this campaign.
However impressive his domestic performances have been since moving to European football in 2009, England aside, it’s always been those achievements on the continental stage that have stood out for Falcao. Two Europa Leagues (first with Porto, then Atlético, in successive years) and a UEFA Super Cup belong to him and his former teammates, and, perhaps just as notably on an individual level, in all three of those victories he was the top scorer in the tournament.
His overall goal record in UEFA competitions is genuinely quite staggering. In 48 appearances in the Champions League, Europa League and Super Cup, including four qualifiers, Falcao’s scored 44 goals. Close enough to one every game. It’s even better when you factor in the amount of minutes played instead – he averages 1.03 goals per 90, or, if you strip out spot-kicks, bringing his tally down to 39 overall, 0.92 non-penalty goals per 90. That’s really not something to be sniffed at.
If you were to compare him to the other most prolific scorers, pointing out that circa 70% of those goals have come in the Europa League, rather than Europe’s elite competition, would be a valid thing to consider. Disappointingly he’s only ever had two chances to play in the Champions League though, one of those being his first season at Porto in 2009/10 (four goals in eight) and the other of course being this year (six in six) with Monaco. Falcao hardly had a bad time under Diego Simeone at Atlético, but leaving Spain when he did means that he ultimately missed out on their peak years of challenging the absolute best.
Besides, it’s not as if the Colombian’s just been scoring against weaker teams from the smaller football nations who qualified for the Europa League, anyway. Much to the contrary, his record in the latter stages of competitions is actually better by a quite considerable margin. Having averaged a goal every 106 minutes in 21 group stage games, and every 92 minutes in his four qualifiers, El Tigre’s found the back of the net 26 times in just 23 games in the knockout stages: a goal every 75 minutes when it matters the most.
And they really have come at the right time. Most memorably was probably that hat-trick against Chelsea in 2012, two composed, well-taken finishes coming either side of his magnificent left-footed curler to help clinch the Super Cup for a rampant Atlético side in (funnily enough) Monaco. He really was lethal that night. If there’s a single game that showed Falcao at the peak of his powers, it was that one.
All three of his goals in that match came from his weaker foot, in fact, and earlier that year he also scored a brace with his left in the all-Spanish Europa League final against Athletic Bilbao. One was eerily similar to the curler against Chelsea, checking back inside before shooting across goal and leaving the goalkeeper helpless; the other a powerful finish from close range after a smart fake in the area fooled his defender. With 12 goals in 15 games in the tournament that season, plus multiple big moments like those, it was no surprise that he was included in the FIFPro World XI for 2012 – the only player not from Barcelona and Real Madrid to get into the team.
Not many individuals manage one season of that quality in Europe. Even less have two. Yet Falcao’s one of the few who have, and while he was a little less polished as an all-round player in the season before that one it was in 2010/11, his second and final year with Porto, where he was at his most prolific. André Villas-Boas’ exciting side won a dominant treble that campaign, almost going unbeaten with Falcao at the forefront of it and the likes of Hulk, Fredy Guarin, João Moutinho and James Rodríguez (the latter two both future teammates of his at Monaco) behind him.
With 17 goals in the Europa League that year, not including his other in the qualifying round, the Colombian broke Jürgen Klinsmann’s record for the most goals in a single edition of the tournament. 1.39 goals per 90 he averaged, or one every 65 minutes, which is nothing short of ludicrous. Ten of those came in the knockout stages, including a four-goal haul against Villarreal in the semi-finals, while he grabbed two other hat-tricks throughout as well. Fittingly, his last of the lot, just as would prove to be the case the following year for Atlético, was the winning goal of the final to seal the cup for his side.
There were no left-footed strikes in Dublin that time around though, nor right-footed ones either. So quite interestingly, of the six goals he’s scored in European finals, none have come from his stronger foot. Instead this sole strike against fellow Portuguese side Braga was a header – something which was, and still is, a real speciality of his. Despite being only 5’9, he’s got the aerial technique to match nearly any forward you have seen or ever will see.
And his goal scoring record is one that surpasses most too. Maybe the trio of injury-strewn years in inconsistent playing environments after leaving Madrid took him away from his true best and out of the spotlight, but there should be no doubt over what Falcao’s achieved in Europe throughout his career. It may seem magical, but it's very much all real.
This article was written by Daniel Butler, the editor of The Tactics Room and the owner of the site's official Twitter account (which you can follow here).