Like it or loathe it, this is the moment when the away goals rule comes into play in the Champions League. It could play an important role in determining which sides go through to the quarter-finals, both this week and next.
Not that many ties are decided on away goals. There was one spectacular example last season, when Roma came back against the odds and knocked out Barcelona after losing the first leg 4-1, but that is a rarity. It is more that the rule can condition the way managers prepare their game-plans, and also affect the psychology of players once a game is under way.
Some managers hate the rule, others merely dislike it. Most think it is out of date, having been devised more than half a century ago, when playing matches abroad was still relatively rare and even teams such as Real Madrid and Milan had only two or three foreign players.
Arsene Wenger tried to start a campaign against it 10 years ago; José Mourinho is another critic. It’s one of the few issues the two men agree about. It came up again at Uefa’s annual Elite Club Coaches’s Forum in September.
“The coaches think that scoring goals away is not as difficult as it was in the past,” said Uefa deputy general secretary Giorgio Marchetti after the meeting. “They think the rule should be reviewed and that’s what we will do.”
Reports suggested that the outcome of that review might have been announced last month, but for the time being there is no indication that the rule will either be reformed or abolished.
Away goals are most obviously a potential factor when a tie is in the balance, especially if the first leg is goalless, as with next week’s Bayern-Liverpool and Barcelona-Lyon games, but they also have a psychological effect when one side is comfortably ahead.
With a 3-0 lead from the first leg, the odds are already heavily in favour of Tottenham going through against Dortmund tonight, but if Tottenham should get a goal, it leaves Dortmund needing to score five. Dortmund are by no means the first team to face this task: Uefa records show it has happened 130 times, but the home team has only gone through on seven occasions.
Ajax face similar odds in trying to overturn their 2-1 deficit in Madrid, even though it sounds like an easier task. In 100 attempts only six away sides have managed it.
If you think those odds are tough, spare a thought for Manchester United tomorrow. Coming back from 2-0 down away from home doesn’t sound impossible, but it’s never been done before, in 106 attempts.
According to the historical statistics, only the fourth of this week’s ties starts with equal odds. Such is the value of the away goal that Porto grabbed three weeks ago when Roma lost their focus after scoring twice in six minutes.
So much for the statistics. Dortmund are doomed, Man United might as well save themselves the air fares. Fortunately, Champions League history tells us there are other factors involved. Extraordinary comebacks do occur.
The most recent is that Roma win in last year’s quarter-final. Barcelona were hit by a whirlwind and never recovered from the early goal prodded in by Edin Dzeko. The ball in the air was a constant worry for Barcelona, not for the first time. Eventually, Gerard Pique panicked and conceded a penalty. The final act was a late header by Roma defender Kostas Manolas. The late goal had a similar effect to the early one: it gave the Barcelona players a feeling of paralysis.
This upset was all about belief. Roma had shot themselves in the foot in Camp Nou, conceding two own-goals and they turned that sense of frustration into fury.
“We believed even more after the first goal, it pushed us,” said Dzeko. “We had to be concentrated not to concede.”
Another precedent for this sort of victory is Barcelona’s own, flabbergasting 6-1 win against Paris St-Germain exactly two years ago. On that occasion, Barcelona had to overcome a four-goal deficit and there was no away goal to help them. Moreover, PSG scored an away goal of their own when they were 3-0 down, which seemed destined to put them through.
The French champions were still ahead on aggregate with two minutes of normal time to go. Then, they appeared to be seized by a form of collective madness. Barcelona had a stroke of fortune with the referee, whose performance could be politely described as compliant. The penalty he awarded the home team in the 90th minute left PSG in disarray. The winning goal came in the fifth minute of added time.
It only takes a few seconds to score a goal. The moral of that astonishing game is that it can only take seven minutes to score three. Those minutes of added time must have seemed like an eternity to the PSG defenders.
You need to go back to 2004 for the other major upset of this sort, Deportivo’s 4-0 win against Milan on a wild night in Coruna. Milan had won the first leg 4-1 and were odds-on to win the second leg too. As with Roma’s win last year, the landslide began with a goal after just five minutes and, like a terrier, Deportivo never let go. They were 3-0 up at the break, the fourth was only a matter of time.
Andrea Pirlo, at the heart of the beleaguered Milan side, described the defeat as “unthinkable”, saying: “The idea that we wouldn’t go through seemed as likely as Gennaro Gattuso being awarded a degree in literature”.
However, thinking back, he remembered Milan were run ragged. “We weren’t able to stop for a break, even in the half-time interval.”
Relentless pressure can sometimes overcome even the longest odds, but United in particular could do with that precious away goal early on.