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Hoonhout: Away goals prove to be great for Champions League play

| Wednesday, April 11, 2018

As Tuesday’s Champions League results proved, sometimes all you need is an away goal.

Both underdogs in Tuesday’s quarterfinal rounds — Liverpool and Roma — were able to advance to the semifinals over powerhouses Manchester City and Barcelona, respectively, through the timely scoring of goals away from home.

After a scintillating 3-0 win at home in the first leg last week, Liverpool was able to slam the door on any sort of comeback for Manchester City with two goals in the second half of Tuesday’s second leg to push the aggregate score to 5-1. And in Rome, AS Roma scored three goals and held a clean sheet against Barcelona, advancing 4-4 on aggregate thanks to a first-leg away goal in a 4-1 defeat last week.

The concept of away goals in soccer is a unique one to the world of sports. It’s only applied in knockout situations such as the Champions League or other tournaments, which often divide the fixtures over a home and away tie for both teams, in a similar vein to how American sports use series in the playoffs. But imagine the Stanley Cup or World Series coming down to which team scored more over the entire series, with points away from home counting more in the case of a tiebreaker. It’s a concept that’s very foreign to us and may seem a little absurd. But in soccer, it makes total sense.

Because it’s so difficult to score in soccer — it’s one of the few sports to have games end unequivocally in draws — the importance of defending is especially prevalent. Jose Mourinho, the polarizing manager of Manchester United, has made the concept of “parking the bus” a credible phenomenon, throwing all 10 players behind the ball in front of the net in a total defensive effort, which makes the already difficult scoring that much harder. Thus, in knockout competitions where there is extra time and ultimately a winner is decided, away goals serve as a buffer to help prevent teams from abusing home-field advantage and force the away teams to be more daring in trying to score.

In the Liverpool-Manchester City and Roma-Barcelona matches, we saw two very different outcomes. Typically, the first leg is the more dangerous of the two matches for the home team, because while scoring is obviously important, the prospects of giving up an away goal can prove especially costly. At home in the first leg, Liverpool played a dream game with solid defense at the back and goal scoring from the front to finish with a picture-perfect 3-0 win. Meanwhile, Barcelona — who also played at home — dominated with four goals but gave up a singular away goal in a 4-1 win. Now, both had large advantages heading into the second leg, with an away goal practically guaranteeing the win. But sometimes, the ideal doesn’t work out. While Liverpool saw its home success spark a 2-1 win to go through comfortably to the semifinals, Barcelona struggled in a shocking 3-0 loss to crash out of the tournament, all thanks to that single goal conceded at home.

While goals don’t guarantee wins, the away-goals rule has proven a mainstay in soccer, and for good reason. Without it, not only would soccer be forced to entertain the possibility of having odd-numbered legs for each fixture — a time consuming and costly adjustment — but the sport would also lose some of the magic of the game itself. Just take a look at Barcelona and PSG from last year’s Champions League round-of-16 matchup. Although Barcelona was utterly dominated in the first leg, losing 4-0 in Paris, the second leg still mattered just as much for both teams. Barcelona pushed hard to score five goals — bound to be an entertaining match — while PSG pushed for a single away goal to put the match out of reach. And even though Edison Cavani did score for PSG, it only pushed Barcelona harder, as the Catalan club scored a miraculous six goals to advance 6-5 on aggregate.

Even if you’re not a soccer fan, a 6-1 score line is a pretty eventful game. And we have away goals to thank for that.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

Contact Tobias