Penalty specialists could be even more crucial in 2021/22 UEFA Champions League

There hasn’t been a penalty shootout in the knockout stages of the Champions League since 2016. But this year, the chances of two teams dueling from 12 yards out are higher than before

UEFA has abolished the away goals rule for the 2021/22 Champions League season, meaning that more matches are likely to go to extra time, and more of those matches are likely to result in a penalty shootout.

The away goals rule has divided soccer fans. Invented when trips to the other side of Europe required several flights or long bus journeys and the opposition was largely unknown, it could be seen as outdated now that teams know every detail about their opponents, pitches are largely uniform, and teams travel in comfort.

On the other hand, having games completely change on one goal can add more excitement to the competition.

Now that the away goal rule has been abolished, teams who have their home tie last have an advantage; if the game goes to extra time, they get an extra 30 minutes of soccer at home. This rewards teams like Real Madrid and Juventus who won their groups this year, while punishing teams like Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain for finishing second.

The rule change also increases the chance of penalty shootouts.

The World Cup and European Championships have seen an average of just over three penalty shootouts per tournament over the past decade, and often at least one of the finalists has had to get through a shootout to get that far.

The Champions League, due to its two-legged format and away goals rule, sees far fewer shootouts. The 2014-15 season saw Atletico Madrid beat Bayer Leverkusen on penalties in the Round of 16, and the 2015-16 season saw Atletico win against PSV Eindhoven in the same round before losing on penalties in the final to Real Madrid. Since then, the knockout stages haven’t seen any penalty shootouts at all.

But had away goals not counted, then Porto’s tie against Juventus last year would have gone to penalties and seven other matches from 2016/17 onwards that finished on away goals would have gone to extra time, with some of those likely going to a shootout too.

With penalty shootouts being slightly more likely now, any team that is good at penalties could have an advantage.

When it comes to saving penalties, Paris Saint-Germain might have the edge. Gianluigi Donnarumma has one of the best career records at saving penalties, keeping out 35% of all spot kicks he has ever faced.

He also showed his value at Euro 2020, when his penalty saves helped Italy win shootouts against Spain and England. And if Donnarumma is injured, Keylor Navas also has a very strong track record at saving penalties across his career.

Liverpool’s Alisson Becker and Inter Milan’s Samir Handonovic also have very strong career records when it comes to saving spot kicks. But Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy has only saved 6% of the penalties he has faced.

Manchester United’s David De Gea is also a little on the low side, saving just 19% of penalties, but current back-up Dean Henderson has saved 42% of all the penalties he has faced, albeit against weaker opponents.

Manchester City fans might be concerned if their matches go to penalty shootouts though. Not only does Ederson only have a career save rate of just 15%, but Manchester City’s strikers are far less consistent from 12 yards than many of their rivals. They have missed four of their last six penalties in the Premier League, with three of the misses coming from players still at the club. If Pep Guardiola wants to finally bring Europe’s top trophy to the blue half of Manchester, then he might need to spend some time working on his team’s spot kicks.

With little between Europe’s best teams, any small advantage can make the difference between getting knocked out or reaching the final in Saint Petersburg.

Last time the Champions League final was played in Russia, Manchester United beat Chelsea in a penalty shootout after Chelsea’s John Terry slipped in the Moscow rain. UEFA’s abolition of the away goal rule could mean penalties have a large part to play in this year’s competition too.