Away goals rule is irrelevant; there’s only one way to pique Champions League interest

Steven Chicken
Antonio Rudiger celebrates Real Madrid win
Antonio Rudiger celebrates Real Madrid win

Ask a hundred people about this week’s Champions League games, and you’ll get a broad range of responses about whether the away goals rule would have made them better or worse.

Tuesday night was a fabulous example of the kind of chaos you can get when the rule is not in effect, as has been the case since 2021/22. Barcelona vs PSG and Borussia Dortmund vs Atletico Madrid was as barmy and enjoyable a pair of chaotic nonsense games as you are likely to see all season.

Away goals: Sadly missed or better left forgotten?

And then: Wednesday night, with two relatively dour, tense games, at least one of which may well have been improved by the implications of away goals: Real Madrid could not have been so damn conservative if they had needed to score again after Manchester City got their equaliser.

READ: Manchester City once again left ruing lack of knockout punch as Real Madrid eke out shootout win

But honestly…we’re not sure it makes a huge difference. There were good years and bad years with away goals, and there have been good years and bad years without.

Looking back through the past few seasons’ worth of Champions League knockout ties, both before and since the abolition of away goals, it’s hard to discern much in the way of a difference in the way games have played out.

In both cases, the round-of-16 ties tend to go one of two ways: either close, low-scoring encounters across both legs, or one side absolutely battering the other in one leg to make the other completely moot.

The drama tends to reach its apex in the semi-finals, which have included (across the two legs) Bayern Munich 3-4 Real Madrid and Liverpool 7-6 Roma in 2017/18, followed by Tottenham 3-3 Ajax and Barcelona 3-4 Liverpool the next year. 

The two covid seasons were just weird all round, including going one-legged in 2020; but we had a return to form after away goals were scrapped in 2021/22, which featured Benfica 4-6 Liverpool and Chelsea 4-5 Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, then Manchester City 5-6 Real Madrid in the semis.

(Another common thread: almost universally, as in practically all tournaments, the finals tend to be a little bit crap.)

Our working thesis, after watching how close and tense the round of 16 was this season and then how enjoyably nutty the quarter-finals have all been, is that enjoyable, watchable football has far more to do with the teams playing the game than the minutiae of how ties are settled.

Clubs’ change of outlook more responsible for return of fun

There have always been spoilers and adventurers, and football passes through trends. Twenty years ago, when Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho broadly set the new template for success at home and abroad, it was all about containment and discipline. Liverpool were so exciting on their way to lifting the trophy in 2004/05 largely in spite of what their manager wanted. Then in Benitez’s first season at the club, they just weren’t very good at playing that way. Djimi Traore started in the final, for God’s sake.

Those sides are fewer and further between now; you can usually count on at least one of the sides trying to take the game to the other, rather than everything turning into the dreaded tactical chess (which, for the record, some of us actually quite like).

Still, we can’t help but feel like those sides who are going to try and grind out results – the very teams that led to calls to do away with away goals, on the basis that it made everything much too cagey – will do so whatever rules are in effect.

Atletico Madrid are the perfect example to investigate, being that they have been s***housing up the Champions League every year since 2013/14, all under the management of Diego Simeone. 

In that time, Atletico have scored just 15 goals in the first leg of their 18 two-legged knockout games, four of which came in a single match against Borussia Dortmund in 2017. That one game aside, Atletico were particularly shy about going for goal when playing away from home in the first leg.

Atletico’s record since scrapping away goals? It’s a tiny sample size, but it’s the one we have: Atletico failed to score in 11 of their 30 two-legged knockout games with the away goals rule in effect (36.67%), and have failed to score in three of their eight two-legged knockout games without the away goals rule (37.5%).

In other words…it has made no difference to them or their approach whatsoever. Atletico went for it against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday night because they fell behind and had no choice. It was the same story when they came from behind to beat Chelsea 3-1 in 2014, and again (in extra time) to see off Liverpool 3-2 in 2020. Away goals had little or nothing to do with it.

If interest in the Champions League is flagging in some markets – the UK, in particular, has prompted worry as far back as 2016 – format and regulation changes are not going to change that. Instead, UEFA would be far better served by looking to ensure that the knockout stages are once again made available free to air.