Tag Archives: Monaco

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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The slow growth of the Europa League

It's great to see the competition finally get a little more recognition.  Source: YouTube

It’s great to see the competition finally get a little more recognition. Source: YouTube

Lambasted for years as being a punishment for teams who dropped out of the Champions League and a burden for those who had to play on a Thursday night but in the last year or so, the Europa League has really grown into an interesting and stronger competition.

The real change has been the reward for winning, with the victors gaining an automatic spot in next season’s Champions League. It’s an added incentive not just to those who qualify for the Europa League but to those who fall out of the main competition too, knowing that winning isn’t just a trophy but a place back at the big table for next season.

The quality of teams entering the competition has also gone up as teams across Europe become a little more competitive. The likes of Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Lazio, Fiorentina, Valencia, Villarreal, Marseille, Monaco, Saint-Etienne, Bordeaux, Schalke, Ajax, Sporting Lisbon, Besiktas and Fenerbahce were all in the first round and some even failed to qualify for the knockout stages.

Then you also look at the sides that failed to make the next round last night. Teams such as Galatasaray, FC Porto and Napoli, who all fell from the Champions League, lost out on a place in the next round along with a number of strong sides.

It’s then highlighted by the good games we shall see in the Last 16. Liverpool against Manchester United, Spurs versus Dortmund, Villarreal facing Bayer Leverkusen, Athletic Bilbao opposite Valencia all showcase the strength that the Europa League has started to boast.

Admittedly, it still doesn’t compete with the might of the Champions League’s teams but at the same time, there are plenty of prestigious clubs that all would like to lift the trophy at the end. Some, like Liverpool or United, could see this as their best opportunity of reaching next season’s Champions League and adding some silverware to that is enough incentive for teams to play stronger teams.

As the competition keeps going, it will hopefully become something a little more than it has been. Less of playing youth products, more a place to use the strength of a good squad or simply to use as momentum like teams had used European competitions in the past.

If anything, it’s great to watch a good competition full of teams that always come up with a little surprise. Seeing a player like Pione Sisto for FC Midtjylland step up against good competition is excellent to see and for any obsessive football fan, the fact they get to see more talent from different corners of Europe is only a good thing.

It will never fully step out of the shadow of the Champions League but at the same time, it doesn’t have to. What is good is that it’s starting to gain more respect, more viewership and probably the most important thing, more teams want to win it.

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