Penalty!

Of all the aspects of the game of football that make it such a thrilling and compelling spectacle, is there any one thing that encapsulates it more completely so than the humble penalty? Dependent upon where your loyalties lay Diego Costa’s spot-kick at Chelsea‘s Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night was either a calamity or a thing of beauty, an aberration or a moment of justice. As if the mini-drama itself was not enough, whichever outcome you may have wished for, Costa’s strike put his team Atlético Madrid on course for a place in the Champions League final.

Diego-Costa-penalty

But penalties seldom need the wider narrative. They exist in their own microcosm, a tragi-comedy of blunder, redemption, triumph or despair: each one the tale of a rash challenge; a silly handball; an unlikely or heroic save; a brave dink down the middle, or in Diego Costa’s case a magnificent swat into the roof of the net. Clearly this was an important one, at a plseaivotal moment of a season which has been momentous for both sides, but even so, it was special.

The penalty was won when Chelsea substitute Samuel Eto’o bundled over Costa shortly after joining the fray early in the second half. The striker’s tackle is of course one of the more clumsy causes of penalties (and maddening when it goes against your team). Having dusted himself down to take the spot-kick Costa was booked in the preamble. Unable to place the ball cleanly because of a perceived ‘hole’ in the penalty spot, he fussed and probed at it so long you wandered if he’d developed some kind of mental block that would prevent him ever kicking a ball again. He picked it up and raked his studs over the spot at least twice, then went face to face with angry Chelsea defenders brooding over his ridiculously long preparations before the referee lost patience and waved a yellow card his way. Then boom! Against the backdrop of baying Chelsea supporters the ball was sent into the roof of the net. Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer dived the wrong way.

Costa gets yellow card

As always, the release of tension followed: the glorious celebrations and the heads-in-hands despair. Another vignette of triumph and disaster. Two and a half weeks earlier Costa had been at the centre of another penalty drama in a La Liga match in Spain against mid table outfit Getafe. With his side leading 1:0 Costa badly fluffed his kick and the goal opportunity was lost. Photographs of the incident shown after the game revealed a Getafe supporter behind the goal dropping his trousers to moon at our man. The humble penalty; all life is here.

Taking penalties clearly requires iron concentration and it’s interesting to note that stellar strikers are not always the best exponents of the art. For many clubs unheralded midfielders or full backs are the key penalty experts. The talents that make an instinctive goal scorer are not necessarily conducive to kicking a dead ball into a net from twelve yards with all the attendant shenanigans that goes into the business. Good strikers sniff out half chances and react sublimely well when time is at a premium. When given time to mull over the options different skills come to the fore. Clearly it doesn’t do to think about things too much.

Southampton’s Rickie Lambert is a notable exception here. The Saints’ hit man is a prolific striker in his own right and also has an exceptional penalty record, scoring all thirty-four of those he has taken at the time of writing. England manager Roy Hodgson must be sorely tempted to take Lambert to this summer’s World Cup because, well, you know.

Rickie LambertLambert really is in a league of his own. Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and any striker-cum-penalty-taker you care to name misses from the spot from time to time. For example, when he was at Liverpool Michael Owen, as ruthless a goal poacher as there was at the time missed ten penalties from twenty-three. Wayne Rooney is into double figures for spot kick misses for Manchester United.

There is much to be debated about the merits of the penalty kick. Often the awarding of one can seem blatantly unfair, for example when a player running away from goal is bundled over at the edge of the box, or when a ball brushes against the hand of a defender in a packed area. A resulting goal is unjustly harsh. Alternatively, stick-on penalties, such as when a defender has punched a goal bound shot off the line, can be missed by the attacking side. Justice in such cases is clearly not served.

Perhaps a tweak or two to the rules would improve matters in these extreme cases but for the time being the penalty remains one of the game’s great emotional lightning rods. Just ask a Chelsea fan. They won the Champions League in 2012 on penalties after Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben had missed a regular penalty in extra-time. You win some, you lose some.

 The Puma

 

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