Who doesn't love a sweet free-kick goal?
It's one of the most beautiful aspects of the Beautiful Game. From the moment of anticipation before the referee blows his whistle, the stare-down between free-kick taker and goalkeeper, to the second that the ball is in the air, curling over the wall and dipping perfectly past an outstretched hand into the corner of the net, sending an entire stadium into ecstasy (or complete, awed silence). Ahhh.
But who is the greatest dead ball specialist in the game right now? After seeing some of the best in the business score from set pieces during the international break, we decided it's time to settle the debate and run down the five best free kick maestros on the planet right now:
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5. Dimitri Payet, West Ham United
If it weren't for those guys over at Leicester City, Payet would be the Premier League's surprise star of the season. The French playmaker has shined for West Ham all year, ranking 5th in the EPL with 8 assists and adding 8 goals himself, despite missing two months to injury. He's also quickly risen to become one of the deadliest free-kick takers around, scoring one in the league, two in the FA Cup and this cracker for France on Tuesday against Russia.
4 Willian, Chelsea
Chelsea haven't had much to celebrate this season, but when they have, it was probably because Willian did something awesome. The Brazilian has enjoyed a career-best year for the Blues, and he's got a total of six free kick goals to show for it. Four of them came in the Champions League ... on just seven attempts! Now that's efficiency.
3. Lionel Messi, Barcelona
Being the best player in the world is apparently not enough for Messi. Much to the chagrin of nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored just one free kick this season, Messi has six such goals on the year, including three in La Liga and two in the same game -- the UEFA Supercup vs Sevilla. Amazingly, Messi might be better from 20 and 25 yards away these days than he is from the penalty spot!
2. Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Bayer Leverkusen
The Bayer Leverkusen star has a perfectly reasonable claim to be the best free-kick taker in the world, given that he's scored 11 goals on dead balls over the last three Bundesliga seasons -- more than anyone in Europe's top five leagues. However, just one of those have come this season, though Çalhanoğlu did net this one for Turkey on Tuesday.
1. Miralem Pjanic, AS Roma
Pjanic might not be able to match Çalhanoğlu's record over the past three years, but he's our vote for the best in the world today. The Roma man has scored four free-kicks in Serie A this season, the best record in Europe's top five leagues. He also has another in the Champions League -- appropriately scored against Çalhanoğlu's Leverkusen -- and hit this one for Bosnia in a win over Switzerland on Tuesday.
It wasn't an easy choice, but it'll be fun to watch Pjanic, Çalhanoğlu and the rest of these stars battle it out for years to come.