The respective domestic leagues may be the bread and butter of Europe’s elite clubs but in terms of prestige, the Champions League is second to none. The group stage is all about ensuring that come the new calendar year, your name will feature in the draw for the round of 16. But from then on it’s football of the most exciting type- two legged knock-out ties.
The primary reason behind the excitement that is associated with knockout football is quite obvious. There are no second chances for teams and fail to win the tie and it’s ‘Thank you, see you next year’. But then won’t the fact that a fixture is spread over two legs blunt the very nature of a knockout tie that excites us, you ask? The answer is a vehement no. In fact, much to the contrary, it actually enhances the excitement. Ties between closely matched teams are almost always on a tenterhook throughout the 180 minutes and are characterized by multiple momentum shifts. Tactical nous, defensive solidity, concentration, clinical attacking, and a bit of luck are all necessary qualities for teams hoping to embark on a long run in the tournament and dreaming of laying claim to the tag of Europe’s best.
The driving force behind the above mentioned momentum shifts is the away goal rule.
As the rule states in case of an aggregate deadlock, away goals are literally worth double. With the away goals rule, the numbers of permutations possible come the second leg are enough to make the head spin. Thus for evenly matched teams, ties are rarely decided after the first leg itself. The balance between a team’s attack and defence has to be maintained throughout and an overemphasis on either could well be fatal to their chances. An all important away goal in the dying seconds of a game could very well be the difference between being Champions League winners and losing quarter-finalists. Yes I am referring to the tie between Manchester United and Bayern Munich in 2010. For neutrals, it was pure entertainment. It finished 4-4 on aggregate with the Germans progressing to the quarter finals by virtue of 2 away goals as opposed to United’s solitary strike at the Allianz Arena. The number of times the pendulum swung in this particular tie was astonishing. United got off to a scintillating start in the first leg with a red hot Wayne Rooney volleying in a precious away goal. But Bayern fought back with a Ribery equalizer and just as it looked like United would be taking a valuable draw and away goal back home, Ivica Olic scored the winner in injury time. Believe it or not but even this paled in comparison to the return leg at Old Trafford. United came out of the blocks with a pace that would make Usain Bolt proud and within 40 minutes, they were 3-0 up on the night and 4-2 on aggregate and seemingly cruising. But the Champions League is as unforgiving as they come. Perhaps the most telling moment over the 2 legs was Olic’s goal just before half time. All of a sudden, Bayern were right back in it and one goal was all that they needed to qualify. And it duly arrived with a corner variation finished off by an excellent Arjen Robben volley. 4-4 on aggregate but Bayern went through courtesy their 2 away goals.
Bearing in mind the importance of away goals, the traditional approach to knockout ties is to make home advantage count. That entails winning the home leg and ideally keeping a clean sheet in the process. So not only does it mean that the home side have to commit men forward but also have to be wary of the counter attacking threat posed by the opponents. And the away side? Defensive solidity and at times soak up the pressure while always on the lookout for crucial away goal(s) or in other words the execution of what is somewhat unflatteringly called a ‘smash and grab’.
Until now, we have been operating under the assumption that this is a typical European knockout tie. But then what if both teams are set up in an attacking fashion for both legs a la Shakhtar and Dortmund? Or when both teams are prone to defensive frailties?To get a clearer picture, let’s consider the Real Madrid Manchester United game. The pick of the draw, the media build up to the much awaited 1st leg at the Santiago Bernabeu was centred around the high profile names of Cristiano Ronaldo in England and Wayne Rooney in Spain. But the main focus of fans was at the other end of the pitch. Madrid haven’t had the greatest of seasons domestically and even in the group stage of the Champions League they finished runners up to Borussia Dortmund. Among the 16 teams that qualified for the knockout stage, Real Madrid finished with the worst defensive record having conceded 9 goals. Not a record Mourinho’s men would be proud of, however tough their group might have been. Manchester United have had their own problems at the back as well. They have conceded 31 goals in the 26 games in the league so far. Of the current top 7, only Everton(32) have a worse defensive record. Their lofty league position is mainly due to their attacking prowess and unsurprisingly they are the top scorers in the league.
So in such cases where you expect both teams to score away from home, does the away goal become more or less important? Put in simple terms, it’s importance will be felt the most in it’s absence. For example in the current scenario, if Manchester United were to keep a clean sheet at Old Trafford in the second leg, they would be through to the next leg regardless of the final score by virtue of Danny Welbeck’s away goal. But quite honestly given the attacking options at Real’s disposal, not least a certain former United number 7, the likelihood of that happening is quite remote. You take United’s away goal from the equation and suddenly in spite of United’s 2nd leg home advantage, Real are top dogs. For the sake of balance, let’s ignore Ronaldo’s equalizer as well. It would still be advantage Real, albeit by a slim margin because by virtue of the away goal rule, how many ever goals Madrid score, United have to go one better.
Thus in a sense, the importance of the away goal is both diminished and magnified. Moving back to the Madrid United tie, the only way that the away goal would decide the tie is if the 2nd leg in Manchester finishes 0-0. As explained above the importance of the away goal would have been truly felt if United had failed to score one. It’s much like insurance. It’s presence is always useful even though you may never use it but it’s absence could lead to dire consequences!
With the 1-1 draw, the match is still well in the balance with all to fight for. How important Welbeck’s goal could prove to be is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure, we have a fascinating Champions League tie on our hands.