The Abolition of the Away-Goals Rule: A Balanced Decision?

Scenes from UCL QF clash, FC Barcelona vs PSG & Bayern Munich vs Arsenal (Image: UCL)

The UEFA Champions League quarterfinal first legs delivered four thrilling matchups over two consecutive nights. On the night of April 10, fans were treated to ten goals across two matches, both ending in draws. At the Santiago Bernabéu, Manchester City faced Real Madrid, resulting in a 3-3 stalemate. Bernardo Silva netted the opener for City, only for Ruben Dias’s own goal to give Real parity. Phil Foden and Josko Gvardiol added goals for City, while Rodrygo and Federico Valverde found the net for Madrid.

Simultaneously, at the Emirates Stadium, Bayern Munich drew 2-2 with Arsenal. Bukayo Saka opened the scoring for Arsenal, before Bayern swiftly equalised though Serge Gnabry, once of Arsenal. Harry Kane converted a penalty for Bayern, answered by Leandro Trossard, leading to a deadlock at full time.

On the following night, two quarterfinal encounters produced definitive results. Barcelona seized an advantageous position against Paris Saint-Germain with a 3-2 victory in Paris, while Atletico Madrid secured a 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund.

The elimination of the away goals rule, starting from the 2021-22 season, significantly altered the dynamics of such matches. Previously, teams like Manchester City and would have been more relieved due to their considerable number of away goals. In contrast, Barcelona would have held a comfortable lead with a three-away-goal cushion, while Paris Saint-Germain faced a daunting task. Dortmund, despite a loss, would have felt more secure with the inclusion of an solo away goal. The away goals rule, introduced in the 1965-66 European Winner’s Cup, became a pivotal aspect of the continental competitions.

Teams and coaches often strategised based on the away goals rule, shaping the dynamic of matches. Its abolition raises the question: Does it level the playing field or diminish one of the game’s most exciting elements?


Here are some historical examples of UCL matches where the away goals rule determined the winner:

Tottenham Hotspur vs Ajax (2019 Semi-Final): This dramatic tie saw Tottenham progress to the final despite a 3-3 aggregate score. Ajax won the first leg 1-0 away, but Spurs triumphed 3-2 in the second leg, which gave them three important away goals, two more than the Dutch side.

Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspur (2019 Quarter-Final): This dramatic tie featured a rollercoaster of emotions. Manchester City dominated the first leg at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, winning 1-0. However, the second leg saw a thrilling comeback by Tottenham. The Etihad stadium saw a seven-goal thriller with the home side winning 4-3. But thanks to Heung-min Son’s brace and Fernando Llorente, Tottenham had three crucial away goals which sent them through after a 4-4 aggregate scoreline.

Chelsea vs Barcelona (2009 Semi-Final): A controversial encounter with a last-minute equaliser by Andres Iniesta for Barcelona. The score finished 1-1 on aggregate after a goalless first leg and a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Monaco vs Real Madrid (2004 Quarter-Final): This tie showcased a thrilling comeback by Monaco. Real Madrid won the first leg 4-2 at home. However, Monaco fought back with a 3-1 victory in the second leg, progressing on away goals thanks to the 5-5 aggregate score. The French side had a superior away goal count.

One of the most exciting matches in the Champions League’s recent history had to be Barcelona’s comeback against Paris Saint Germain in the second leg in the 2016-2017 season. In the first leg at Parc des Princes, home side PSG stunned the Spanish giants 4-0, thanks to Angel di Maria’s brace and goals from Julian Draxler and Edinson Cavani. The hopes were less in the return leg at Camp Nou, but Barcelona started the scoring right at the start of the game through Luis Suarez in the 3rd minute. Cavani’s 62nd minute strike made the result 3-1 on the day and 3-5 in aggregate in favour of the French champions. Right at the end of the regulation time, Neymar Jr. scored back-to-back goals in quick succession which made the aggregate score 5-5, but it still meant PSG were through on a single away goal. Barcelona had four minutes to salvage something and right before the final whistle, Sergi Roberto stunned the world with an acrobatic finish to steal the match away from PSG. This last-minute tension was the result of the away goals rule. Had this match been played yesterday, who knows, Barcelona might have played for extra time in the last couple of minutes.

Sergi Roberto after scoring the winner against PSG in 2017 (Image: FC Barcelona)

In a different context, FIFA had abolished goalkeepers’ antics during penalty kicks. If you don’t allow Emiliano Martinez to use his theatrics in front of goal, isn’t it restricting his individualism? Neymar was booked during a Ligue-1 match for ‘showing-off’ skills during a play where it was ‘not needed’. Is this the way ‘Jogo Bonito’ is played?

The only question is, is restricting players’ individualism or cancelling a rule that added an extra sense of urgency for teams and managers actually helping the game? The away-goals rule added an extra flavour to the game and managers could actually calculate their next move based on the scoreline in a certain fixture. For the fans, it gave them an added motivation to back their teams to not concede a home goal. For the travelling fans, there was an extra responsibility to back the team to help them score an important away goal.

But now, as it stands, Manchester City, after scoring three away goals, wouldn’t get the advantage in their home fixture. Had it been a few years ago, Barcelona could have also afforded a 1-0 loss in their return leg versus PSG and have gone through.

In the writer’s personal opinion, keeping aside the other debate on individualistic approaches, at least the away-goals rule should be reintroduced for the game’s sake.

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