Football

Penalties: The ultimate test of nerve

Neuer was the hero at the Bernabeu (©GettyImages)
Neuer was the hero at the Bernabeu (©GettyImages).

Bayern Munich celebrated wildly after their talismanic German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger slotted home the crucial spot-kick.

After eight months of competition, the final place in the Champions League showpiece on May 19 rested on a single penalty. Once again the German aptitude for the spot-kick resulted in the Munich side's progression, this time at the expense of Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid.

Prior to Schweinsteiger's kick, the Bernabeu had witnessed some shocking attempts. Iker Casillas saved from Toni Kroos and Phillip Lahm, while Manuel Neuer smartly blocked Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. However, Sergio Ramos saved Madrid's worst for last, brazenly ballooning the ball over the bar to join Charlie Adam's Carling Cup effort in the earth's orbit.

It has not been a good few days for penalty takers. Six of the eleven spot-kicks taken over the course of the Champions League second-leg ties were missed. Lionel Messi, Ronaldo and Kaka, with five FIFA World Player of the Year awards between them, all fluffed their lines.

A penalty is the ultimate lottery and the ultimate test of technique at the same time. It's success, more than any other facet of football, lies in the mind. It's a mental test, a battle of wits between keeper and taker, who must trust their technique to complete the straightforward act of a free shot on goal.

But, after two hours of action other factors come into play. Players may have performed well and be confident, they may have played poorly and be hesitant but they are all almost certainly going to be nervous and tired.

As a result, even the best in the world will miss. With 122 goals between them this season, surely Messi and Ronaldo would be able to deal with a 12-yard shot but still both failed to score.

Ronaldo has previous when it comes to big-game misses, he saw his effort saved by Petr Cech in the 2008 Champions League final. But, as pundits regularly like to point out, nothing can replicate the pressure and drama of competition, although not for the want of trying.

Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd famously had his players practice penalties on the Vicarage Road pitch after a league game, but many see such practice as futile.

Arsene Wenger said he believed practising before a game rarely helps while Glenn Hoddle admitted England didn't practice before their penalty elimination to Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. But while penalty taker's often fail to practice, goalkeepers take every opportunity to do so.

Successful keeper's often credit their success in shoot-outs to study and preparation, Ben Foster even consulted an iPod before saving from Tottenham's Jamie O'Hara in Manchester United's 2009 League Cup final.

Jens Lehmann consulted a scrap of paper tucked into his sock before his saves sent Germany through against Argentina in the 2006 World Cup.

Similarly, Edwin van der Saar psyched out Nicolas Anelka when he pointed to his left during the 2008 Champions League shoot-out between United and Chelsea. Anelka shot right, Van der Saar saved and United lifted the trophy.

Several studies into the art of penalty-taking have been carried out in an effort to break down the stats. Research as recently as 2011 found that goalkeepers favour diving to their right, a natural consequence of there being more right-handed players. Another German study found that on average 76% of penalties are scored, with a 99% success rate for those aimed into the upper half of the net.

Food for thought then for Chelsea when they come up against Bayern Munich next month.

Unfortunately for them Schweinsteiger's success gives more support to the widely-held belief that Germans are the world's premier penalty-takers, while their English counterparts routinely flounder once the pressure is cranked up.

Since 2000, three German teams have competed in Champions League knock-out round penalty shoot-outs, predictably winning all three. However, this ignores the fact that both of Bayern's missed penalties were by German national team players, Lahm and Kroos.

Even so, Chelsea might want to wrap up their tie against Bayern Munich before extra time is up. With Neuer rapidly cementing his reputation as one of, if the not the best goalkeeper in the world, Chelsea's spot-kick takers face a tough test if they are to secure their first Champions League trophy.

After watching their former-boss come undone at the Bernabeu, Frank Lampard and co will be keen to avoid the same fate. To give themselves the best opportunity Petr Cech will have needed to have his notebook out and to have been watching Bayern's spot-kicks closely.

Topics:
Football
Chelsea
UEFA Champions League

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