Nothing makes a football fan salivate more than the prospect of the rare pairings offered up by the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League.
Though each year’s freshly printed fixture list is met with an eager eye, a curious finger sliding down the page, in search of the dates that Manchester United play Liverpool or Real Madrid take on Barcelona, variety remains the spice of life.
So dominant are “El Clasico” that some have even expressed weariness at their multitude of annual clashes. The stuff of dreams though the clubs may be, crafted under the ethos of beautiful football and an intolerance for austerity, familiarity nonetheless, breeds contempt. Even Messi versus Ronaldo, like the chart-topping hit you liked eight weeks ago, starts to grate as it gets overplayed.
Barcelona versus Borussia Dortmund however, is fresh and different. A new blend of players, testing of styles and battle of wits. When Europe’s elite stand toe-to-toe, mystery gives way to fantasy… and then aggregate scoring gives way to reality, dragging proceedings back down to earth harder than Peter Kay in a trampolining accident. As we lie prone in a crater of disillusionment, the “away goals” rule follows suit, flattening us like a boulder.
I really don’t care for aggregate scoring. If you don’t know what aggregate scoring is, then I’m assuming you just stumbled on this page randomly, but bugger it, I’ll explain anyway.
Basically, in many soccer tournaments, teams are paired in traditional elimination brackets, but instead of having single elimination, the teams play each other twice. One leg at either team’s venue. After both games have been played, the two scores are combined (so if leg 1 ends 2-1 and leg 2 ends 3-3, the aggregate score is 5-4).
The “away goals” rule is often the first tie-breaker in such games, and as the name suggests, the team that scored the most goals at the opposing team’s venue, wins.
The idea is that both teams get to be tested equally at home and away and it significantly mitigates the concept of home field advantage. At least it does in theory. In practice, it changes the whole mentality surrounding the tie.
When I’m faced with the prospect of Barca facing Dortmund, Manchester United facing Juventus or Paris Saint Germain facing Bayern Munich, I just want to see a simple, competitive game of football. Just take the field, play the game in isolation as you would a normal league game, and let’s see who wins.
You only need to listen to any pre-match analysis.
“What’s a good result for United tonight, ex-Middlesbrough Centerback pundit?” the host will ask. And like clockwork, the response will be one of two things:
If “United” are at home:
“Get a win of course, but be careful not to concede the away goal”.
If United are away:
“Well the main thing is to try and nick an away goal, and do no worse than a loss by one goal”.
So instead of seeing these two sets of expensively-assembled stars on the grandest stage in club football, just playing each other, you get a first leg where the home team is cagier than usual, because they don’t want to concede an away goal. The away team is likely to be fairly defensive as well, perceiving a clean sheet and perhaps an away goal nicked on a counter attack as a strong position to be in come the second leg.
Of course, if one team happens to be in especially good form that evening, and trounces the other, there’s a good chance that the second leg is dead rubber anyway. Regardless, the first leg will directly effect how the second is approached.
If you’re 2 goals ahead, the impetus will be on containing the other team, while they’ll probably be more attack-minded than usual, because they need at least two goals to survive.
The commentary will be dominated by the permutations of the various scorelines. What does the each team need to do to progress? How does this goal they just scored effect things? In what circumstances can extra time be forced?
Whatever happens, the events of the other game are imposed on the one being played, whether it’s getting a result to take to the second leg, or overcoming the predicament you’re in after the first.
For this reason, I’m in the rare position of preferring the group stages. I was in the even rarer position of being disappointed when UEFA understandably dispensed with the short-lived and notoriously unpopular second group stage.
The obvious answer would be single elimination, though that has the issue of one team having a home advantage. That’s not too bad, though especially with the travel and environmental elements of a European away game, that might be more of an issue than in a domestic cup.
Neutral venues would solve that but obviously are a non-starter both in terms of logistics and supporters.
Something that Major League Soccer did in its early days, was a “best of three” series during their playoffs. This didn’t last long because primarily, there was a short turnaround on scheduling games and in that era, it wasn’t easy to sell tickets in such a short space of time. Also, because this was an American league departing from the established norm, I’m sure it was dismissed as an aberration versus an innovation.
However, I think it could have an application here. If we simply used a system akin to “two-team groups”, where wins are worth 3 pts and draws are worth 1, the first two matches could stand alone. Of course the odd number of games means that one team will be away twice. We could simply see that as the luck of the draw, but alternatively, we might be able to utilise aggregate scoring and away goals after all!
After the first two matches, assuming that we don’t already have an outright winner, the deciding venue can be determined first by points (this would mean a win and a draw had occurred), then by goal difference, then away goals. The final game would effectively be a KO match (no away goals, just penalties and/or extra time if necessary).
Because there is now far more importance on actually winning on the night and a real incentive to avoiding a third game, we get a series of games are more likely to stand on their own and aren’t overtly influenced by the other fixtures!
Just some griping and a potential solution, that will likely go unheard.
But at least I got it off my chest!