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Should the away goals rule be scrapped? FourFourTwo investigates

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AWAY-GOAL LOSERS

  • Bayern Munich, 1980/81 Bavarians have gone through on away goals four times since 2006/07, but this one didn't go their way. Liverpool went through to final thanks to Ray Kennedy's 83rd-minute goal.
  • Man United, 2001/02 Unlike Bayern, it's been a stumbling block many times. Perhaps most painful in a 3-3 draw against Bayer Leverkusen, who advanced to final only to be sunk by Zidane.
  • Inter, 2002/03 Losing in your own backyard? Not nice. Even worse, the designated 'away team' against neighbours Milan were eliminated in the San Siro after a 1-1 draw. Cruel indeed.

Wrong way around

The rule sought to bring greater equilibrium between home and away legs. “It was an artificial regulation brought in to avoid a third match,” former UEFA Technical Director Andy Roxburgh tells FourFourTwo. “It was to encourage elite teams to attack.” 

By and large the rule was welcomed, though of course it was not without misunderstandings or criticism. In 1969 Liverpool were knocked out of the Fairs Cup by Vitoria Setubal after forgetting all about the rule: having won the second leg 3-2 they waited around for extra-time, only to be informed by the referee that away goals applied in normal time. “We were beaten by a penalty, an own goal and the rules of the competition,” manager Bill Shankly grumbled.

Over time, however, the rule has grown to look anachronistic. Better pitches, easier and more luxurious travel and developments in both tactical trends and team preparation mean the away goals rule now risks swinging the pendulum too far in favour of the away team, to the point where its original intention has become skewed: one could feasibly argue that the team finishing top of their Champions League group is now at a disadvantage, as they must play the second leg at home. 

“What actually happens,” argues Roxburgh, “is that it works the other way around. It’s encouraged home teams to defend. It gives certain goals an added value and you can argue that’s artificial. It encourages caution that wouldn’t be there if you removed it.”

“Counter-attacking is part of modern football and something that has really developed in the European game in the last six or seven years,” Ferguson said back in 2009. “We had a spell after we won the European Cup in 1999 when we were disappointing and had to change our thinking. We lost away to PSV Eindhoven, Anderlecht and others, all on the counter-attack.” 

Luciano Spalletti’s Roma, whose 4-6-0 formation’s crowning moment came when they battered Inter 6-2 in the 2007 Coppa Italia Final, in part inspired Ferguson’s change of thinking. Ferguson had first-hand experience of Roma’s system after the sides met in the 2006/07 Champions League quarter-finals.

He began to place greater emphasis on a fast-paced counter-attacking style led by a fluid front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney. It worked: United won the Champions League the following season and reached three finals in four years.

The rise of the counter has grown, the away goal’s added value a juicy carrot only further incentivising teams to play on the break away from home. Real Madrid crushing Bayern Munich 4-0 in the Allianz Arena in 2013/14’s Champions League semi-final was a masterpiece in counter-attacking excellence. “The development of teams being able to play on the counter-attack is quite incredible,” says Roxburgh.

“The classic counter-attack was a boot up the park, but teams have become very sophisticated at what we [at UEFA] call collective counters. They win it somewhere in the midfield and a group of three or four players exploit the opposition at pace.” 

“I think it makes you more attack-minded”

The luxuries of modern life have also weakened the argument for an away goals rule. “Nowadays, teams always travel in style,” says Benni McCarthy, who won the Champions League with Porto in 2004. “Trains are first class and the buses and planes are very comfortable. The effect of jet lag has also decreased for away teams.” 

Sol Campbell disagrees, however, telling FFT that away travel “takes more out of you than you think”. 

What can’t be denied is the part played by modern pitches – pristine in condition and a world away from the bogs and mudbaths of yesteryear. “You’ll never see a good football match on a bad pitch,” Wenger once moaned, and it says a lot about the modern game’s elevated standard that Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were once so unimpressed by the state of the San Siro pitch that they filed a complaint to UEFA that Milan ‘failed to water the pitch within an hour of kick-off’.

Technological advancements are also a factor. Everything is recorded and analysed; European away days are no longer a terrifying crusade into the unknown. “Knowledge of team tactics is better now,” says Campbell, who scored in the 2006 Champions League Final for Arsenal.

“There’s not the mystery of who you’re going to face, because football coverage is so widespread and you’ll go into every game knowing everything you need to about every opponent you might come up against.”

European competition is also seeded up to its eyeballs now: coefficients and ranking systems have created a closed shop that make it rare to see lesser-known sides squeezing into the group stages.

In a sense, Europe has become too familiar for the away goals rule. Elsewhere, in South American or African competitions for example, it still makes sense: wildly differing climates, terrains and longer travelling times dictate that. When San Lorenzo travelled to La Paz to play Bolivar in 2013/14’s Copa Libertadores semi-final it was widely reported the team were given Viagra to help oxygenate the blood and assist them in coping with the 3,650m altitude. “Even playing in Quito at lower altitude, you still feel it,” San Lorenzo manager Edgardo Bauza, who won the Libertadores in charge of Ecuador’s LDU Quito in 2008, told Olé

Back in Europe, though, Roxburgh senses from his 18 years spent in the company of elite coaches a cooling enthusiasm for the away goals rule. “There’s more negativity towards it,” he says. “I gather now most of them are vocal about it. A combination of things has led to a change of perspective on the rules.” 

To get rid of the rule, a new solution is required. But at present no credible alternative has been put forward, and UEFA have previously suggested there is “no concrete plan or proposal for the rule to be scrapped”. 

Meanwhile, some – such as Campbell – remain in favour. “I think it makes you more attack-minded. You go to top teams in Europe and know that if you can get a goal it will make a huge difference. It gives the away team that extra incentive to score and I think that’s great. It keeps everyone excited.” 

Opinion is clearly divided, then, but until a Plan B surfaces – or an elite team goes out kicking and screaming – the away goals rule will survive.

“We wanted away teams to attack,” Roxburgh concludes. “Now it’s encouraging home teams to defend. It was introduced for the right reasons but it’s time to look at it.”

Drogba would no doubt agree. 

This feature originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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