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Why the Away-Goals Rule Should Be Abolished from the UEFA Champions League

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Why the Away-Goals Rule Should Be Abolished from the UEFA Champions League
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Arsenal lost 3-1 at Bayern Munich at the Emirates, but despite winning 2-0 in Germany three weeks later they were eliminated from the Champions League on away goals

Football isn’t always fair.

Just ask Frank Lampard, whose goal in a World Cup Round of 16 match against Germany was disallowed because the officials ruled the ball hadn’t crossed the line. Or ask Pedro Mendes, who was denied a late winner against Manchester United in 2005 when Red Devils ‘keeper Roy Carroll scooped the ball from out behind him well after it had crossed the line.

Injustices both, but at least the introduction of goal-line technology (and hopefully, one day, video replay) showed the football authorities to be willing to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future (although we’re still waiting on full, universal implementation).

PSV Eindhoven, as of yet, haven’t received similar vindication; nor have Manchester United or Arsenal, or the countless teams who have gone out of the Champions League on the away-goals rule.

And while it’s too late to right the wrongs they endured, you could forgive them for wanting some closure to their suffering, if only to know the same mistakes wouldn’t occur anymore—that their exits from Europe’s most prestigious club competition were unfair, unjust.

This Massimo Ambrosini goal in the first minute of second-half stoppage time in the second leg of a Champions League semifinal tie with PSV Eindhoven in 2005 put AC Milan into the final on away goals after losing 3-1 in The Netherlands.

But UEFA—progressive on so many issues but stubborn on this—will have none of it. And once again, as always seems to be painfully true, the victims are forgotten when the scandal of the crime has blown over.

In 2008, at a club managers’ meeting in Vienna, Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger voiced his opposition to the away goals rule, telling reporters (via Rory Smith and Derick Allsop, Telegraph), “The weight of this goal in the tactical approach to games” was too much. “It was brought in when teams just defended when they were abroad because it was much more frightening to travel,” he said. “Now, if you play at home and do not concede, it is a good result. The situation is reversed.”

Four-and-a-half years on and the law is still in place.

Although, in the grand scheme of things, it is a far better arrangement for unbreakable ties than the drawing of lots, which is one of the things they used to do. And after that was ruled unfair they tried playing a third, decisive match at a neutral location—clearly the optimal solution, but one that is no longer viable given fixture congestion and scheduling arrangements.

And Wenger is right.

The away-goals rule was introduced in the mid-1960s when travel between the footballing cities of Europe was an arduous affair—something that simply isn’t true anymore. And if it ever livened up a potentially dire first leg, those days are long gone.

“The away goals rule was introduced to encourage adventure from the visiting side,” wrote BBC columnist Tim Vickery last spring. “But there is a sense now that it often has a very different effect—giving the home side in the first leg a powerful incentive not to concede.”

Which, given the tactical sophistication of most sides that progress to the knockout stages, is something they can easily plan to do.

Manchester United and Bayern Munich ended their quarterfinal tie in 2010 level at four goals apiece, but this Arjen Robben goal ensured Bayern progressed on away goals.

Malaga, for example, came into the first leg of last week’s quarterfinal encounter against Borussia Dortmund with one of the best defensive records in the competition.

But as they have often struggled to find the back of the net, they did what they did best and prevented Dortmund from finding the back of their over 90 minutes at La Rosaleda. As a result, they can still concede on the away trip to Germany and still advance should they nick an equalizer.

In other words, their 1-1 draw at the Westfalenstadion would be worth more than Dortmund’s 0-0 draw in Spain.

Only, it isn’t. At least not logically.

One of football’s most compelling features is that, even today, it remains a simple game. There are hardly any markings on the pitch, and although the offside rule is, itself, a touch-point of controversy, the offside line remains a moving thing rather than a band of spray-paint on grass. Matches evolve without stoppages, and as there is little need for equipment the players actually look like people instead of gladiators or comic book villains.

And the teams that scores the most goals wins—some of the time.

Ironically it was Wenger—one of the few people of influence to speak out against the offside rule—who was punished by it last month.

After dropping a 3-1 decision to Bayern Munich at Emirates Stadium, Arsenal regrouped and bravely defeated their German hosts 2-0 in the return leg. But while the aggregate scoreline might have read 3-3, it was the Gunners who bowed out of their competition. A 2-0 victory, it seems, was not as valuable as a 3-1 win.

In other words, UEFA attaches more value to some goals to others—an insult to logic, mathematics and good old common sense. For when one of a sport’s most powerful governing bodies cannot concede that 1+2=3 the same as 3+0=3, well, something is wrong. And embarrassingly so.

As respected journalist Jonathan Wilson wrote in the Guardian just last month, “The regulation is unfair, it’s illogical and often achieves the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. Why do we still put up with it?”

Why, indeed.

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