When Mario Balotelli stepped up to take a penalty in the 94th minute on Tuesday night with his AC Milan side 1-0 down at Ajax, nobody could have possibly deduced from his confident demeanour that he had missed from the spot for the first time in his professional career only three days earlier. Sure enough, the Italian paused in his run-up to see Jasper Cillessen shift his weight ever so slightly to his left, before dispatching the spot kick in the other direction.
The attempt Balotelli saw saved by Napoli's Pepe Reina at the weekend was by no means a poor penalty. It was brilliantly saved, put to his favoured side -- to the right of the keeper -- and further towards the corner than previous attempts he has scored. As can be seen from the below graphic, few of Balotelli's penalties are placed right in the corner, but are instead based on being able to outfox his opponent.
Contrary to popular opinion, "Balo" isn't the most successful penalty taker around. Since the start of the 2010-11 season, he has scored 12 spot kicks, a tally bettered by no fewer than nine players in the top five European leagues. He has done so from just 13 attempts, but his 92.3 percent conversion rate from the spot is far from the best as well.
Penalty-taking is an art and a skill, one that very few footballers manage to perfect. There are many ways to take a spot kick and many variants of either the power or the precision approach. Further, the more practice one has in matches, the more chance there is of goalkeepers being able to detect trends and tendencies in a player's attempts from the spot. Below we take a look at some of the best exponents of the art of taking a penalty and analyse their success, failure and preferred style.
Cristiano Ronaldo has an exemplary goal-scoring record of 210 in 206 games for Real Madrid, and it is hard to find much wrong with that, although the fact that 28 of his goals in La Liga have come from the spot points to a slightly misleading side to such a statistic. However, the fact that he has done so from 30 attempts (93.3 percent conversion) deserves praise.
Interestingly, every single one of his attempts from 12 yards that he has hit either side of the goalkeeper has gone in. He has hit five down the middle, the three of which he has hit high, all resulting in goals, while the only two he has missed were the only ones taken low and straight. He hits his penalties hard, and that is probably why when he goes towards the corner keepers never save them, and why, when hit down the middle and low, they almost have too little time to get out of the way.
Second on the list for most penalties attempted in Europe's top five leagues is PSG striker Edinson Cavani, who has taken 24 spot kicks since August 2010. He has little success from the spot, however, missing eight of those attempts, resulting in the worst conversion rate (66.7 percent) of those with at least 15 attempts in that time frame. He has more luck when hitting the ball to the goalkeeper's left, scoring eight out of nine to that side (as well as missing the target with one for Napoli against Lazio last year). On the other side -- what is often referred to as a right-footer's "natural side" -- he has missed five out of 11 attempts.
Luckily for him and his new employers, however, they also have Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has taken six fewer penalties than the Uruguayan but scored one more. The Sweden star has scored with every penalty that he has hit the target with in the past four seasons (17 of 17), missing on one occasion when he hit the woodwork. He tends to go to his natural side, scoring with each of his 13 strikes to that part of the goal, and goalkeepers seem to have little to no chance of stopping his attempts to that side. Ibra's overall 94.4 percent conversion from the spot ranks him as the second best behind you know who.
Lionel Messi missed a key penalty against Chelsea in the Blues' triumphant Champions League run in 2011-12, but in league games, there is nobody better. While Ronaldo charges up to the spot and smashes the ball into net, Messi has a more withdrawn approach.
As can be seen from the placement of his penalties, he watches the goalkeeper's movement and simply aims to put it to the other side, impressively able to change his mind at the last possible moment. Very few of his penalties are hit into positions that would be considered out of reach for a goalkeeper, but that doesn't matter for the four-time World Player of the Year, who just places the ball away from his opponent's dive, resultantly scoring 19 of his 20 attempts (95 percent).
Serie A stalwarts Francesco Totti and Antonio Di Natale have identical penalty records in the last four seasons, each successful with 13 of their 18 attempts (72.2 percent). Both favour their natural side to the goalkeeper's right, but Di Natale has more success there, scoring eight out of 10 in to that side, while Totti has scored seven of the 11 he has put to that side. The Roma legend is most successful when putting his penalties high, scoring on every occasion that he hit the ball above waist height.
Antonio Di Natale has placed a couple off the ground and centrally, both successful, but the one time he went for the top corner he ended up skying it. The Udinese veteran is certainly best off hitting the ball low and left.
Both Radamel Falcao and Frank Lampard have had 16 attempts from the spot, but the Colombian has a vastly superior success rate, scoring 15 to Lampard's 12. Falcao has already scored two spot kicks since his big-money move to Monaco this summer, and his 93.8 percent success rate is behind only Messi and Ibrahimovic of the aforementioned players. His placement and power make his penalties so hard to stop -- scoring all 10 of those he has found the corner with -- and only once has an opposing goalkeeper kept him out, that attempt going straight down the middle.
Frank Lampard, meanwhile, has had mixed luck from the spot, his 75 percent success rate is way down on what is expected of someone so technically gifted. His penalties follow a similar pattern to those of Falcao, but he has seen four stopped even when finding the corner of the goal. It may well be that the Chelsea man is not as good at disguising his kicks as his competitors.
As previously stated, penalty-taking is an art, and while Messi has the best conversion percentage, Ronaldo has taken the most penalties of all the players listed (30 to Messi's 20), so his opponent is more likely to know what he is about to do, making the rate at which he scores from the spot all the more impressive.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.