In the space of five days last week, the Handanovic cousins did what they do best. Jasmin Handanovic, goalkeeper for Slovenian champions Maribor, repelled shot after shot when Chelsea visited in the Champions League. His best moment came late on, when he saved a penalty from Eden Hazard. It was only the third time in 30 penalties that the Belgian had not scored.
Then Samir took centre stage. The younger man at 30, he is Slovenia’s number one, and has more penalty saves to his name than any goalkeeper playing in Europe’s top five leagues. On Sunday night, Inter were 2-1 up when opponents Hellas Verona were awarded a penalty. Up stepped Luca Toni: Handanovic kept it out. It was his third straight penalty save of the season and his fifth in succession a run stretching back to April 14. It was his penalty save number 20 in Serie A, at a saving ratio of 36 per cent. The average saving ratio is around 22 per cent.
On Saturday, Samir Handanovic will be in goal for Slovenia in their European qualifier against England. Leading the England team out will be Wayne Rooney, who has replaced Steven Gerrard as captain, and Frank Lampard as penalty-taker for the side.
In his last two Wembley appearances, Rooney has scored penalties against Norway and San Marino, thanks to a new technique that involves a Neymar-like jog-on-the-spot pre-approach and then a powerful Goalkeeper-Dependent strike, whereby he picks his spot early, approaches the ball at speed and does not change his aim, regardless of where the goalkeeper dives.
Will that be enough to beat football¹s penalty king? Handanovic prefers to wait until the last moment to make his move which is good news for Rooney, at least if he sticks to this new strategy. The keeper, though, is superb at reading opponents¹ technique to detect their corner, and has an incredible reach.
But Handanovic does not like to talk about his penalty technique, as he does not want to be seen as a specialist. That seems self-defeating: he is one, and the more people that know it, the more likely opposition strikers will look for the furthest corners to beat him, so increasing their margin for error. If a goalkeeper is seen as specialist, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: take the example of Mikael Landreau, who was 17 and on debut for Nantes when he saved Lubomir Moravcik’s penalty, and thereafter became feared from 12 yards. (It even got to the point when he stood next to a post while facing up to Ronaldinho, and he still managed to keep out the Brazilian¹s penalty.)
The list of players who have been thwarted from 12 yards by Handanovic reads like a who’s who of Italian football: Samuel Eto’o, Kaka, Hernan Crespo, Antonio Cassano (twice), Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani (twice). If Rooney did have the opportunity to take him on from the spot, and he missed, at least he would be in good company.
*Ben Lyttleton is the author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty. You can follow him on Twitter @benlyt