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Champions League new away goals rule: what happens if it ends level?

Just one goal separates Manchester City and Real Madrid going into the return leg, how important are away goals if the game ends in a draw?


With Liverpool confirmed as finalists in Paris on 28 May, Real Madrid welcome Manchester City to the Santiago Bernabéu on Wednesday for the return leg of their Champions League semi-final. Last week’s first leg at the Etihad ended 4-3 - in previous years, such a result would have given Madrid a significant advantage but how important will those away goals be when the final whistle is blown tonight? Put simply, not as important as before.

Do UCL away goals count as double?

When the 2021/22 Champions League knockout stage got underway back in February, there was an important change to the rules - one which had determined so many ties in previous editions of the tournament. In June last year, UEFA took the decision to abolish the away goals rule in all two-legged European ties. Introduced in 1965, the away goals rule stated that all goals scored by the visiting team in both home and away legs would count as double if the aggregate score ended level.

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Famous ties decided by away goals

Many famous victories were celebrated due to the away goals rule - Barcelona advanced to the 2008/9 final even though their semi-final against Chelsea ended level at 1-1 on aggregate. Andrés Iniesta’s stoppage-time equaliser at Stamford Bridge counted as two goals under the previous rule.

If we look at another example from last night’s other semi-final return leg - Liverpool went into the game having won the home leg 2-0 at Anfield. Villarreal heroically went 2-0 up when the two teams met to settle it in Spain, effectively levelling the tie at 2-2. But Jürgen Klopp’s team were back in the driving seat when Fabinho made it 2-1 on the hour, giving Liverpool an aggregate score of 2-3 - under the old rule, Fabinho’s goal would have counted as an away goal, i.e. double, in the event of Villarreal scoring another. But Unai Emery’s team still had the chance to level the tie again with just one goal. As it turned out, the visitors netted another two goals as it ended 2-3 on the night and 2-5 on aggregate.

Tactical decisions to be changed

The reasons why it was time to get rid of the away goals rule were became clear in the most recent editions of the tournament. Teams playing the first leg at home would simply focus on avoiding conceding any goals at all - even if that meant putting 10 men behind the ball and defending for 90 minutes. It didn’t make for entertaining football. Teams parking the bus in the first leg put the visiting team at a disadvantage later, when the tie was to be decided at their ground.

But even without the away goals rule, teams who play the second leg at home will have an advantage if the tie ends level after 180 minutes as they will have the comfort of playing extra-time and, if need be, a penalty shootout infront of their own fans.

UEFA explained why the away goals rule had to go and what will replace it: “With the decision to remove this rule, ties in which the two teams score the same number of goals over the two legs would be not decided on the number of goals scored away, but two 15-minute periods of extra time are played at the end of the second leg and in case the teams score the same number of goals or no goals during this extra time, kicks from the penalty spot would determine the team which qualifies to the next stage of the competition”.

Extra-time, then penalties

So as we reach the return fixture in the semi-finals, any of the two-legged ties which end level after the home and away matches have been played will go to extra-time - 15 minutes per half. At the end of that, if the score is still level, the game will be resolved from the penalty spot - a shootout involving five players from each side which will go to sudden death if the score remains level after both teams have taken all of their five spot-kicks.

UEFA gave examples of recent statistics to illustrate their decision to make the historic change. “Statistics since the mid-1970s show a clear trend of continuous reduction in the gap between the number of home-away wins (from 61%-19% to 47%-30%) and the average number of goals per match scored at home-away (from 2.02-0.95 to 1.58-1.15) in men’s competitions”.


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