We make the case for why the debatable advantage should not decide the outcome of games in European football’s top club competition.
Let us look at two ties from the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League; Juventus Vs Tottenham and Chelsea Vs Barcelona. The first leg of both the ties ended in stalemates in Turin and London respectively. Tottenham welcomed the Italian powerhouses to London for the next leg while Chelsea hoped to beat Barcelona at Camp Nou.
At London, despite taking the lead in front of the home support, Spurs succumbed to the Italian side. However, in Barcelona, the home team made sure that the support did not go to waste as they got over Chelsea scoring three unanswered goals. A valid argument here is that Juventus is stronger and more intense than Chelsea. However, a fate similar to Tottenham befell Manchester United also, against underdogs Sevilla, with the Red Devils losing to the Spanish side in Old Trafford. The contrasting results beg one question. Is home advantage a real thing?
There is no denying the fact that the familiarity of the pitch and the surroundings can help create a more comfortable feeling. Along with the will of a completely supportive crowd, matches have been turned. Battles that seemed lost and forgotten have been won with seconds left to spare. Giants have been slain while minnows have been run over. But at the highest echelons of the sport, doesn’t this aspect become redundant? Moreover, should this part of football have a say in deciding ties single-handedly? I am, of course, talking about the away goals rule in the Champions League Knockout stages.
In the 2017-18 Champions League campaign, Spurs lost to a surprised Juventus side at home in England
The away goals rule was first applied in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup when Budapest Honvéd beat Dukla Prague in the second round in 1965–66. It was introduced in the European Cup in 1967–68 for the first round, 1968–69 for the second round, and 1970–71 for later rounds. The rule was put forth, supposedly, to encourage the away side to attack more in the opponents’ territory and also to prevent costly and time-consuming match replays. As time wore on, home teams have found it as an excuse to sit back and defend. It has come to a point where teams are relieved if they see themselves get a 0-0 score at the end of a home fixture.
When different styles of different teams come into play, the rule gets more complicated. Teams that have their strength in defending, generally find it more comfortable sitting back especially during away fixtures. But due to this rule, they are forced to shed their natural style and go for a goal in the opponents’ territory. And the funny part is, the rule is also applicable even when the teams facing each other having the same home stadium. The 2003 Champions League semi-finals between Inter Milan and AC Milan was decided by the away goals rule despite the fact that both the matches were played in the San Siro.
The enforcement of the rule even after extra-time causes chaos. If the teams are level after 180 minutes of play then the game moves on to extra time, where the rule applies in the same extent. This allows the visiting side a clear 30 minutes to score a goal, that could potentially decide the tie as the home team would then have to score two goals to negate the effect of the away goal. Such complexities can cause unfair results. A tournament that decides who the top club in Europe would be, should be above such unnecessary complications.
Away goals have risen in stock to become a tactical piece in any tie. The rule has garnered enough importance to come into discussions and strategies. When the best clubs in the world face each other, home advantage merely becomes a term that gets thrown around. Chelsea in 2012 and Portugal in 2016 disproved it quite clearly; a rule that has its roots in that concept should be removed as soon as possible.