In defence of the away goals rule

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Look, we’ve all been burned by it or adorded it, so let’s talk about the away goals rule in the Champions League.

For me, I’ll never forget the time Manchester United lost to Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League semi-final on away goals. Having drew 2-2 at Old Trafford, the Germans slipped through our grasps and snuck into the final in a 1-1 that will have me shaking my head for all eternity.

At least Zinedine Zidane scored that blinder in the final.

So many complain about it, while those same voices are eerily quiet when it works in their favour. With that in mind, do we really need the away goals rule? Is it really fair to everyone? Or is it just a way to avoid extra time like it’s the plague for club sides?

In the last six years, eight knockout ties have been settled by the away goals rule with at least one each year. Four of the opening ties were won by the home side, Paris Saint-Germain drew twice to Barcelona in 2012-13 and to Chelsea in 2014/15, while the other two were defeats for Arsenal at the Emirates.

Two of those four that won their opening home fixture secured safe passage to the next round, while both of the Gunners’ initial defeats could not be turned around away from home. PSG’s two draws saw them knocked out at the Camp Nou but qualify in extra time on away goals at Stamford Bridge.

In some, like Marseille’s passage in 2011/12 over Inter Milan and Arsenal’s two losses, the rule looks incredibly harsh. The Ligue 1 side won the tie in the very last second, having held on for 74 minutes before the Italians nabbed two goals only to see it slip on one mistake in the dying embers.

As for the Gunners’ pair of clashes, three goals conceded at home in opening legs killed the ties. On both occasions, they managed to score two away without conceding but alas, the away goals rule states that is not good enough.

Then again, it gives some teams their just rewards. Atletico Madrid were excellent in their semi-final over Bayern Munich last season, with their away goal coming whilst the tie was level at 1-1 and Chelsea’s excellent 2-0 win at home meant the single goal they stole from a drab affair at the Parc des Princes earned them rightful passage to the next round.

In truth, it does tend to hand the advantage to the away side in that first leg. In the 78 games played in the knockout stages in the last six years, the away side has only failed to score in the first game on 27 occasions.

58 of those 78 sides that start away have gone through. However, with seeding affording you that opportunity through qualifying top of your group, it’s not a surprise as you expect a stronger team to be heading on the plane first.

What is extremely interesting is when it comes down to the semi-finals, when the true big teams match up without a seeding advantage. Only one side that went away in the first leg has qualified for the final in the last 10 attempts, Real Madrid being the sole victor over Manchester City last season.

That shows that when it is whittled down to the crème de la crème, the law doesn’t matter. In fact, only one semi-final has required away goals in that span, which was the aforementioned Atletico win, while only one other has gone down to penalties.

In the end, UEFA are forced into a little bit of a corner. The rule is there, on paper at least, to encourage attacking play from the away sides in both legs but more often than not, it causes it in the first leg while the home side sit on anything they’ve gained in the follow-up match.

At the same time, no club wants to play extra time in midweek with a busy domestic schedule that has everyone vying for silverware too. It also tends not to matter in the slightest when it really comes down to the best of the best, so isn’t it a relatively amicable way to thin the herd early doors?

You could tweak it a little, potentially switching the seeding around to test the big teams but with clubs highly unlikely to want to force extra time and the rule needing to be applied fairly irregularly, they will stick to their guns. And so they should, It does encourage exciting ties in the long run and can keep teams in them for longer if they really give it their all.

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3 thoughts on “In defence of the away goals rule

  1. shotongoalx says:

    Actually, Leverkusen drew Manchester United 1-1 at home and moved to the final on away goals, as they drew at Old Trafford 2-2 earlier. And they surely did not get humped in the final – unless a 1-2 defeat can be called ‘humping’.

    But that’s beside the point. The only real change away goals rule introduces is the reduced number of extra-time scrambles and penalty shootouts. Which, I guess is good for saving the players’ legs – but that’s where the common sense ends.

    Fans do not play the game. Neither do venues: after all, every pitch and every goal frame has to be within the strict norms. And with the away goals rule we have a situation, in which home sides are playing ultra-safe, denying their own fans a spectacle.

    • Thanks for reading! The incredibly stupid oversight from myself not researching my opening (and relying on my 9-year-old self’s memory) was foolish and has been edited, so thanks for pointing that out.

      You also make an excellent point about the bad points of away goals, which I did touch upon on the piece, that it does make home sides in the second leg overly defensive, especially as they have scored an away goal more often than not.
      It’s a strange catch 22 to be in for those home teams, having been in all angles of those two-legged ties, because they are denied the spectacle but a lot won’t mind so long as they progress.

      I’m not saying it’s perfect, I think there is still a little tweaking to do but I thought it was quite interesting, at least in recent times, how often the rule is actually needed and where the bias lies, along with how little it has impacted the very big games such as semi-finals (that’s not to diminish the round of 16, where it happens the most frequently).

      • shotongoalx says:

        Already in the first leg, home teams are freaking out about the possibility of getting countered and conceding. It surely is a Catch 22 – from one point of view, it encourages the away team to play more boldly; from the other, it discourages the home side from exposing itself.

        As of the rule’s negligible impact on late stages of the tournament: I guess regardless of the opponent, no big team is willing to leave the fate of a tie to a rule that can be overturned by a single goal for their rivals. Apart from just a simple coincidence, I can’t think of any other reason for that.

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