Champions League: Away goals really do rule

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“If you are old-fashioned, you would always say you want to be at home in the second leg”
Manchester United manager, David Moyes

“We’ll travel to Manchester to play attacking football and score goals. I don’t think it matters if you play the away leg first”
Bayern Munich captain, Phillipe Lahm

Following his side being paired with Bayern Munich in the quarter final of this year’s Champions League, Manchester United boss David Moyes has suggested that the draw could have been kinder to his men. Not only is taking on the pace and power of the reigning European Champions and dead certs for this year’s Bundesliga a frightful prospect for Moyes’ inconsistent and somewhat pedestrian outfit, but the Scot is also aware of the significance of having to take his team to the Allianz Arena for the second leg.

Having watched his team overturn a two goal deficit at Old Trafford against Olympiakos in the previous round, the Manchester United boss realises how important home advantage in the second leg can be.

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But is Moyes’ outlook fair, or is it old-fashioned and out-dated? And is Lahm right that playing away from home in the first leg is not a disadvantage?

We have looked at over 100 Champions League ties over the past eight seasons to try and understand the extent to which being drawn away for the first leg – with the benefit of having home advantage in the second – is an influencing factor on the outcome of two-legged match-ups. It should be noted that this author does not envisage there being significant variation from the results presented below in any other competition with ties played over two legs with away goals in force, such as the Europa League.

The headline finding is telling, with the side that is drawn away in the first leg going on to win the tie almost two-thirds of the time. Indeed, all of this year’s Round 16 match-ups were won by sides having home advantage in the second leg.

But what else can we infer from the underlying data? The following table provides an overview of the outcome of the tie depending on what happens in the first leg.

Table one: The importance of winning when at home in the first leg of a cup draw

Home and away 2

While the outcome of the first leg is split in a predictable pattern across wins, draws and losses, the lessons for teams navigating the first leg at home are stark. The home team lost the first leg on 32 of the 106 occasions analysed in the sample.

In only one instance was that team able to reverse this deficit to win the tie and progress to the next round (that was in 2010/11 when Leonardo’s Inter Milan side dumped Bayern Munich out of the competition despite losing the first leg at the San Siro 1-0. A 3-2 win in Germany was enough to see the Italian side through on away goals).

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Looked at another way, winning the first leg is a huge boost to the chances of an away team progressing in the tournament. Logically this makes sense – the importance of away goals coupled with the significance of home advantage in the second leg to protect the result is crucial.

In our sample the home team drew 32 of the first leg games. While the likelihood of progression is greater than if this game was lost, the position of that team going into the second leg is still precarious. On only nine occasions did the home team drawing the first leg win the tie overall. In other words, where the home team goes to their opponent’s ground on level terms after the first leg, over two-thirds of the time (72%) they will likely leave empty handed.

On 42 occasions the home team in our sample was able to capitalise on this advantage and win the first leg to set themselves up nicely for the visit to their opponents. In 27 instances (64% of the time) they were able to protect this lead to progress to the next round.

While not shown in the table, in 50% of the times (18 of 37) a home team progressed into the next round their victory was based on preventing the opposition from scoring an away goal in the first leg.

Conclusions

All in all, the hypothesis that to be drawn away in the first leg and have the advantage of gunning for overall victory in the second in front of your home fans is not old-fashioned. Rather, there seems to be a compelling evidence base for this assumption. This can be summed up as follows:

  • If the away team wins the first leg, the tie is as good as over; but,
  • If the home team wins the first leg, while progress is not inevitable, they are more than half-way there.

Reflecting on the match-up between David Moyes’ Manchester United and Philipp Lahm’s Bayern Munich, one feels that Bayern are in the strongest position at the moment. if Man United are going to give themselves any chance of being in the draw for the Semi Final then at the very least they need to shut Bayern out, and would be helped enormously if they could actually win the first leg. Anything less is likely to result in the Red Devil’s exit.

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