Champions League ties – home or away first?

March 19, 2010

The most famous away goal in Champions League history?

There is a feeling amongst football fans that when it comes to Champions League knockout fixtures, your side is better off playing the first leg away from home, with the comfort of the second leg back at your own ground. Arsenal’s task against Barcelona is trickier, apparently, because they’ll have to go to the Nou Camp in the second leg and get a result.

The first example of how it’s not necessarily an advantage to play the second leg at home comes when you consider the possibility of extra-time in the second leg. As UEFA’s rules put it:

“In the event of both teams registering the same number of goals, the side that scores more away goals goes through. If they are still level, two 15-minute periods of extra time will ensue at the end of the second leg. If, during extra time, both teams get the same number of goals, away goals count double. If no goals are scored during extra time, a penalty shoot-out will follow.”

In other words, the away goals rule does apply in extra-time. So, should the match go to extra-time in the second leg, the side playing away from home in the second game will have 30 extra minutes than their opponents to score that all-important away goal. Yes, this is balanced out by the fact that the home side have home advantage for a longer period of time, but given the choice, wouldn’t you rather play that extra half hour away from home knowing that a score draw (within that extra-time period) would send you through?

The second question also concerns the away goals rule. Football is a game where the two opposing sides look to feel each other out during the opening period of a tie, particularly in a two-legged match. First legs are often extremely tight and cagey affairs, with the second becoming more open and free-scoring. The two legs can often have completely contrasting natures as a result of this. Take the example of the recent Atletico Madrid v Sporting clash in the Europa League. The first leg was a bore 0-0 in Madrid as the sides looked to work each other out, before they really went for it during the second leg, and produced an exciting 2-2 draw in Lisbon. Atletico went through on away goals, but this was really simply because the second leg was naturally more open, rather than a particularly more attacking attitude away from home.

But a one-off anecdote hardly proves the point, so instead, here are the total goals scored in first and second legs during the last two Champions League knockout stages (2007/08 and 2008/09), along with the results from this season’s second round matches:

And if you’re wondering about the breakdown of that:

That’s over a sample of 36 matches in total, and there is a difference of 27 goals between first and second legs. That means the second legs see 0.75 more goals per game than first legs, which is quite a large difference.

So, considering that second legs are significantly more high-scoring than first legs, would you not rather be playing away in the second leg, where goals for your side count for more?

Additional research about which side is more likely to progress by Chris below

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