Liverpool’s loss to prompt a much-needed review?

The exits of both Manchester United and Liverpool from European competition on the away goals rule this season has unsurprisingly re-ignited the debate in England as to whether the rule should continue to be used to decide drawn ties. A cruel rule at the best of times, its unforgiving use was none more evident than last night, when Sarah Jessica Parker’s stunt double Diego Forlán lashed the ball home in front of The Kop to ensure that Liverpool would finish without a trophy for a fourth consecutive season.

The rule was first applied to the now-defunct UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup during the 1965-66 season, and by 1970-71 it had been applied to all European tournaments. Its introduction heralded the end of the ‘third-leg’ and ‘coin-toss’, two measures which had previously been used to decide drawn ties, as well as minimising the use of the penalty shootout. Aside from preventing these eventualities, the rule’s inception was intended to prevent teams from playing negatively in the away leg of their tie; the mid-60’s ‘Catenaccio’ influence of Helenio Herrera’s legendary Inter Milan side had become widespread across the continent, and UEFA sought to minimise this. The away goals rule, in theory, was intended to encourage the away team to become more aggressive away from home.

Unfortunately, the inauguration of the rule has spawned some unforeseen consequences. The away goals rule has acted as a catalyst for counter-attack culture, with many away teams content to sit back, soak up pressure and try to nick a goal. In more extreme cases, such as Chelsea’s showing at the Nou Camp in last season’s Champions League semi-final, teams will assemble a five-man defence behind a four-man midfield with absolutely no intent of attacking. This ‘content-to-keep-a-clean-sheet-at-all-costs’ attitude inevitably breeds dour football, with some purists hyperbolically claming that such tactics are killing the modern game.

Arsene Wenger noted how the deployment of the rule has changed in recent times, arguing that the focus has shifted from keeping a clean sheet away from home. The Frenchman stated that, “the weight of the away goal is too heavy now tactically – it was created 42 years ago at a stage when the teams that went abroad just defended. But now when you play in your own stadium without conceding you have a good chance to go through. So it has reversed the situation.”

Another anomaly of the away goals rule concerns ties that are drawn after 90 minutes of the second leg. As the away goals rule applies to extra-time, critics argue that it gives the team playing away from home in the second leg an unfair advantage, as it affords them an extra 30 minutes to score an away goal. Many believe that the proverbial slate should be wiped clean after the 90 minute-mark, meaning that the final aggregate score or penalties should decide who wins the tie.

However, despite its flaws, many still believe that the away goals rule is the fairest way of settling two-legged ties. For the most part, the rule will reward the team that plays the better football over two legs; indeed the rule seems to embody the notion that ‘fortune favours the brave’. It is a well-known fact in football that playing away from home is far harder than playing in front of one’s own fans, and those who do attack away from home and score are usually rewarded. Despite the perceived refereeing failings of Tom Henning Øvrebø, Chelsea ultimately lost in their 2009 Champions League semi-final because they failed to attack in Spain.

Aside from the extra-time anomaly, the rule affects both teams involved equally; each side has the opportunity to score goals away from home and keep a clean sheet whilst playing at home. The away goals rule also serves to minimise the chances of a tie being surrendered to the ‘lottery’ of a penalty shootout.

Although detractors will point to the negative by-products of the away goals rule, it is quite clear that it has the potential to invoke magic within ties. The rule allows the balance of a tie to shift very quickly; a look at Manchester United’s recent tie with Bayern Munich emphasises this. At 3-0 up, Manchester United looked home and dry, and many predicted the match would quieten down as Manchester United prepared for their inevitable progression. However, Ivica Olić’s goal just before half-time injected some excitement into the tie, and Arjen Robben’s subsequent wonder-strike then put pressure on Manchester United to score. Within half an hour, the emphasis of the tie had completely switched and this was all thanks to the away goal rule.

As a completely deflated Liverpool fan I am currently cursing the existence of this darned rule, but I can still see the value and worth of away goals. There currently appears to be no fairer or more exciting way of settling ties, and until one comes along, I believe that the away goals rule should continue to be used.

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