How AC Milan's penalty prowess could hurt Liverpool in the Champions League

By Andrew Beasley

Liverpool versus AC Milan is a true clash of European heavyweights. With six and seven continental titles respectively, no other games in the 2021/22 Champions League Group Stage will see both sides carrying such rich history.

Given their impressive level of success, it seems hard to believe that the Reds have only faced Milan twice before, both times in finals.

But while Liverpool have become Champions League regulars in recent years under Jurgen Klopp, the same cannot be said for their opponents from the finals of 2005 and 2007.

When Milan reached three finals in a five-year span in the early years of the 21 st century, it was natural to assume that their status in the upper echelons of European football was secure for years to come.

Yet their trip to Anfield will be the first match in the Champions League since the 2013/14 season, and they last reached the last eight of either European competition two years prior to that. With two finals and a further quarter-final berth in the last four seasons, Liverpool hold a significant advantage in terms of recent experience.

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However, if any Kopites think this gives their side a significant edge ahead of the match on Wednesday evening, they may need to think again.

When looking at how the two teams performed last season, there was very little to separate them. Stefano Pioli’s side may have earned 10 more points than the Reds but they only scored six more goals while conceding one fewer.

And if we look at the underlying numbers and grind down as far as two decimal places, it reveals that Liverpool and Milan could barely be told apart in 2020/21.

Per FBRef, Klopp’s team generated 1.91 expected goals every 90 minutes last season, just 0.04 more than their Champions League rivals from Serie A. In other words, it would take 25 matches, or two thirds of a season, for the Reds to amass a single expected goal more than Milan.

That said, it must be noted that the Italian side won an incredible 20 penalties in 2020/21, at least five more than any other team in Europe’s big five leagues, and eight more than any Premier League club were awarded.

Liverpool have had that many spot kicks in the Premier League since the start of November 2017, which puts things in perspective – ignore penalties and the Reds’ attack looks the healthier of the two. As the match referee, Szymon Marciniak, points to the spot at an above average rate in the Champions League, it may not be possible to disregard penalties on Wednesday though.

But with or without them there wasn’t much to divide the teams at the back end of the pitch last season. Liverpool’s xG conceded average was the better of the two by just 0.01 per 90 minutes, or 0.08 if we only consider non-penalty shots.

The two teams are even similar in how they go about their business, at least in normal circumstances. The Reds’ injury issues in the centre of their defence meant they were not as potent from set pieces as they normally would be in 2020/21, though having scored twice from them in this campaign things seem to be returning to normal.

Milan scored 15 times from dead ball situations last term – without including their 15 penalty goals – to joint-lead Serie A alongside Benevento for finding the net from set pieces.

Piolo’s boys also scored five times from counter attacks (only Inter and Fiorentina bagged more) and their tally of three fast break goals in 2021/22 is the joint-most in the big leagues in the early weeks of this campaign.

It’s a bit of a cliché to characterise Italian football as slower than its English counterpart but watch clips of Milan’s recent counter attacking goals and they aren’t as lightning quick as Liverpool are when tearing opposition sides to shreds on the break.

That’s splitting hairs, though. Liverpool and Milan are two teams who performed to an incredibly similar level last season and though the Reds look more like their old selves in the early weeks of this campaign, it promises to be a tight match at Anfield in match week one.

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