The 2021/22 Europa League quarter-finals are upon us and – just as with the Champions League – they involve a notable change to the rules, which kicked in after the group stage. How many times have you been sitting watching a game in previous years and found yourself, or sometimes a confused commentator, working out the complexities of how the potential of late equaliser resulting in a 2-2 aggregate score would actually change a team being knocked out to them going through to the next round? Well, no more. Now two plus two does indeed simply equal four.
Removal of the away goals rule
In June last year, UEFA took the decision to abolish the away goals rule in all two-legged European ties. Introduced in 1965, the away goals rule stated that all goals scored by the visiting team in both home and away legs would count as double if the aggregate score ended level.
Many famous victories in both the Champions League and Europa League have been celebrated due to the away goals rule over the years – Andrés Iniesta broke Chelsea’s hearts by bagging a stoppage-time winner at Stamford Bridge in the 2008/9 semi-final – the tie ended 1-1 but it was Barça, as the visitors, who advanced. The Catalans found out what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the away goals rule when Roma heroically clawed their way back after losing the first leg 4-1 to win 3-0 on home soil. The tie ended 4-4 on aggregate but Edin Dzeko’s goal at Camp Nou counted as double, so the Italians progressed to the semis.
Away goals leading to parking buses
In recent years, however, teams playing at home would simply focus on avoiding conceding any goals at all – even if it meant putting 10 men behind the ball and defending for 90 minutes. It didn’t make for entertaining football – the kind we have come to expect in the world’s greatest club competition. Teams parking the bus in the first leg also put the visiting team at a disadvantage later, when the tie was to be decided at their ground.
UEFA explained why the away goals rule had to go and what will replace it: “With the decision to remove this rule, ties in which the two teams score the same number of goals over the two legs would be not decided on the number of goals scored away, but two 15-minute periods of extra time are played at the end of the second leg and in case the teams score the same number of goals or no goals during this extra time, kicks from the penalty mark would determine the team which qualifies to the next stage of the competition”.
Extra-time then penalties
So from the knockout stage of the 2021/21 competition, all two-legged ties which end level after both the home and away matches have been played will go to extra-time – 15 minutes per half. At the end of that, if the score is still level, the game will be resolved from the penalty spot – a shootout involving five players from each side which will go to sudden death if it remains level after both teams have taken all of their five spot-kicks.
UEFA gave examples of recent statistics to illustrate their decision to make the historic change: “Statistics since the mid-1970s show a clear trend of continuous reduction in the gap between the number of home-away wins (from 61%-19% to 47%-30%) and the average number of goals per match scored at home-away (from 2.02-0.95 to 1.58-1.15) in men’s competitions”.
No doubt, by the time we reach the summer, we’ll all have our opinions on whether or not it has been a positive move.