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Away Goal Rule: Why Do We Need It?

Away goals carry an immense weight in the Champions League.

They delivered Milan to the final in 2005. They saw Liverpool oust Barcelona in 2007, despite the latter winning the leg at Anfield. And they pulled Barca’s fate from the abyss in the 93rd minute in this past Wednesday’s controversial leg at Stamford Bridge.

Added to the competition in the late 60’s, the rule is designed to encourage visiting teams to attack at the other side’s ground. Benfica were the first side to advance on the rule after a 1-1 aggregate score against Glentoran FC in the 1967-68 season when the rule was only applied in the first two rounds. In the 1970-71 season, the rule was finally applied to all rounds. Panathinaikos advanced to the final after a 4-4 semi final scoreline against Crvena Zvezda. Prior to the introduction of the rule (and the introduction of penalty shoot-outs) matches would go to a third leg and then be decided by a coin toss, as when Liverpool advanced after three drawn legs against FC Köln in the 1964-1965 season.

The question seems to arise each season: do we still need this rule?

Arsene Wenger spoke out against the rule at the beginning of this season. ‘I personally feel the weight of the away goal is too heavy now tactically – it was created 42 years ago at a stage when the teams that went abroad just defended,’ Wenger said. ‘But now when you play in your own stadium without conceding you have a good chance to go through. So it has reversed the situation.’

But when Chelsea visited the Nou Camp in the first leg of the semis, they acted as if they were playing before 1970. They went abroad and just defended, with no concern for the great advantage the might have earned by scoring an away goal. While the horrid refereeing in the second leg will continue to dominate the headlines, the Blues’ failure to attack Barcelona in Spain was their true undoing. They showed we clearly still need this rule in the Champions League.

Since the 2003-04 season, 19 of the matches between the end of the group stage and the final have resulted in draws after 90 minutes of play. 11 of those were decided by away goals. Most supporters will agree, penalty shoot-outs are the least satisfying way to decide a match. Does anybody want to return to the coin toss? No? Me neither.

The away goal rule ensures that a match will only go to penalties under the very specific circumstance that both sides are drawn with the same number of away goals. Since it is generally harder to score in the other team’s stadium, this rule remains less arbitrary than deciding a match based on how many times the goalkeeper guesses the right direction in a series of penalty kicks.

To cite the old cliché: it is still a level playing field. Each side has the chance to score these weighty goals. A 2-1 away loss becomes a decent result. A clean sheet at home becomes a serious advantage. And that 93rd minute blast could just be enough to make the walls come a-tumbling down in your own house.

The away goal rule may prove eternally frustrating for those whose European dreams are undone by it, but it remains the best way to break a tie and reduce the number of penalty kick shoot-outs supporters must endure.

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  1. JB

    May 11, 2009 at 9:33 am

    This rule is one of the main reasons why football will never be as popular in the United States as it is in the rest of the world. Ties/draws are generally unacceptable in American sports. As an American, I completely understand the rule, but I honestly hate it. It is RIDICULOUS to me that two teams can essentially tie each other and the team that scored the most away goals gets to continue. A friend of mine teases me for being a “soccer” fan. And he says to me all the time that he can’t watch a sport with very little scoring and the possibility of ties. I’d argue against the scoring argument and probably win, but the fact that you have two teams (Chelsea and Barcelona) tie eachother after two games, the winner is decided by who scored more at the other’s stadium. In my opinion, a tie is a tie. They really should eliminate this deciding factor and just send the game into 30 more minutes of play, and if that still doesn’t have a winner, send it into penalty kicks, just like a traditional tie.

    It just doesn’t make any sense…Could you imagine this being in place in ANY other sport/life situation? It’s just silly…

  2. andrew bock-oruma

    May 9, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Asernal and Chelsea both lost the semifinal matches during the first leg. Strikingly was the way Arsenal played man united in the first leg, it was very ” unarsenal”. A one-legged encounter in the knockout stage would have been a nice option, but lets not forget that this game is largely about the money and it will be difficult for FIFA to accept that option.

  3. Sean Atkinson

    May 9, 2009 at 10:40 am

    One more thing, I agree that the away goal rule should be done away with in extra-time because that gives the away team too much of an advantage. That being said, I guess proponents of the rule would say that the home team has an advantage when that scenario comes about because they’re able to play an extra 30 minutes on their home ground.

  4. Sean Atkinson

    May 9, 2009 at 10:31 am

    The Fat Panda:

    There is no way to know what the score in the Chelsea v Barcelona tie would have been without the away goal rule so there is no point in stating, “If the away goal rule was removed, this would have been a 1-1 tie and would have given the teams 30 additional minutes to win the game. Would anyone complain about that?”

    RaiderRich2001 :

    Seeding teams 1 through 16 based on group stage points is not fair because it would give an unfair advantage to clubs in weak groups.

    As for making games one-offs, where would you play them? At a neutral ground? Doesn’t that give a club’s supporters the short-end of the stick because instead of say 40 000 fans of club X being able to attend a match, only 20 000 would be. They would also have to carry the additional burden of travel costs.

    Moreover, pooling gate receipts would in not even come close to making up the revenue a club would lose by having a one-off game at a neutral site. Yes, television money dwarfs the money a club earns from gate receipts but, gate receipts are still vitally important which is why clubs like Liverpool want a new bigger stadium and why Manchester United wants to expand Old Trafford’s capacity to 95 000.

  5. RaiderRich2001

    May 9, 2009 at 10:14 am

    LI, if that’s the hangup to playing a single match, the solution is simple. Pool all the gate reciepts for each knockout round and distribute the money evenly among the clubs that played in that round. The NFL does this with the road team’s share of the gate receipts already. (Yeah, yeah, I know American football, but it succeeds at keeping everyone happy)

  6. LI Matt

    May 9, 2009 at 8:51 am

    For the knockout round only, why not just make it one game…

    The point of the two-leg series (which dates back to the Mitropa Cup before WWII) is that every team gets a home date in every round. Perhaps that’s less important today when most of the money comes from the TV companies, but there it is.

  7. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    May 9, 2009 at 8:32 am

    Here in CONCACAF they discontinue the use of the away goal in the second leg in extra time. For example this year in the semifinals US based USL club Puerto Rico Islanders scored what would have been a finals clinching goal in ET versus Mexican side Cruz Azul, but when Cruz Azul scored again it was considered a draw and we went to PKs. In Europe, Cruz Azul would have had to score twice to win the tie.

  8. RaiderRich2001

    May 8, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    For the knockout round only, why not just make it one game and seed everyone 1-32 or 1-16 based on Group Stage points and GD with the higher seed getting home field advantage? You wouldn’t have to deal with aggregate or away goals and the last Match Day before the knockout stages wouldn’t be as boring as it is now because even teams who have everything locked up would be playing for better seeding.

  9. The Fat Panda

    May 8, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Chelsea had a strategy and had the best chance to score in the first game away. They took a team that averages between 3-4 goals per game and held them scoreless at home. Regardless of how they did it, they did it, and nearly walked away from the game with a 1-0 win after Drogba’s chance.

    At home, they applied more pressure and had better chances to score regardless of how they played strategically. They scored the first goal and had many more chances. Barcelona failed to score in 180 minutes of play. They scored a goal in stoppage time to steal the win, regardless of the fact that they needed the extra two minutes to get their first goal. While EPLTalk’s writers have sadly jumped on the bandwagon of calling this strategy ineffectual, Chelsea did what most thought wasn’t possible if they had made one more clearance in the 182nd minute of the second game of play.

    If the away goal rule was removed, this would have been a 1-1 tie and would have given the teams 30 additional minutes to win the game. Would anyone complain about that?

  10. Eladio

    May 8, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    My biggest complaint is that the Away Goal Rule applies to ET as well — which is just silly. Why give an advantage to club A over Club B, where they get 30 extra minutes to score an away goal, just because they were the first ball out of the draw?

    This was put in place to discourage ending games with PKs — but I don’t see that an away goal is a better tie-breaker than taking PKs.

    I’m not sure what the answer is — there may not be one.

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