Friday, May 4, 2018

The Luck of the Draw?

The Luck of the Draw?
The Curiousity of the Two-Legged European Tie

Drawn away first.

When a supporter hears those three words at the end of an announcement of a cup draw they often breathe a little sigh of relief.

'That gives us the edge' they mutter to themselves.

Home advantage in the final race to the line is reassuring psychologically, as momentum joins the battle more readily with the roar of supporters in your ears and familiar sights in your eyes.

Get the tough one over first and if possible grab an away goal and then it will all be downhill for us in the second leg at our own patch.

If David v Goliath had been a best of two, then David would have wanted to travel first.

If that is so then this season's UEFA Champions League final should have been between Real Madrid and Roma, who both had the luxury of playing at home second in their semi finals, while the Europa League final tie should therefore have seen Atletico Madrid take on Salzburg.

But as those match-ups clearly show, playing the away leg first is not enough alone to ensure success: Liverpool and Marseille advanced despite playing away second.

Real seemed to have proved the point by winning having played the second tie at home, although for the second round running they did the hard work away from home in the first leg before surviving a succession of scares to stagger over the line on their own patch.

Roma's spectacular fightback from starting 1-4 down from their quarter final match in the Camp Nou also seemed to confirm the edge which being drawn away first hands to clubs and the Giallorossi came within one goal of hauling back Liverpool's 5:2 lead in the semi final.

Each time they scored their hunger to score again increased in parallel with the fervour and thunderous support of their tifosi in the Stadio Olimpico.

Had Barcelona been at home instead second time around, one suspects the intimidating atmosphere of their immense Catalan cauldron would have prevailed instead over the Italians.

Unlikely too that the Blaugrana would have been so complacent and lackadaisical as they were in letting slip a three goal advantage in Italy, bunkering down pathetically in attempt to see out the clock.

But in this age of soccer statistics, what do the number-crunchers have to say about this popular belief?

Well, in 2007, the Journal of Sports Sciences analysed 12,000 UEFA cup ties going back to 1957 and found that 53% of teams playing the second leg at home advanced, a majority but a far from overwhelming one and a majority that has actually been in gradual decline.

Why in decline? It is hard to prove but one suspects that travelling overseas these days is much less of an unsettling experience than it was in the past.

Europe has become far more interconnected in many ways over the past twenty years and its football leagues manifest this globalisation in their multinational playing and coaching staff.

There is no mystery anymore about playing on the continent and the days of homesick British stars pining for Rice Krispies or lamenting that everything around them is foreign are mostly in the past.

There is also little risk of encountering an unknown playing style since the internet affords such immediate scrutiny of every ball an opponent has kicked all season along with a treasury of information on every player.

The computer programs clubs employ can quickly show every tackle made by Giorgio Chiellini or every ball headed by Christian Eriksen for instance, along with a treasury of stats covering the game from every angle.

So a Dynamo Kiev or Mighty Magyars shocking other nations by playing unexpected styles belongs to the history books.

Some, usually more limited teams are set up to play better at home first, with a battle plan of scoring then shutting up shop for a 1-0 win at home and playing catenaccio for the second 90 minutes. Being drawn away first upsets their psyche as they are not used to chasing the game.

Playing away can still psychologically shock unprepared teams, as Roma proved by going 5-0 down at Anfield in an extraordinary capitulation, but when they woke up they netted twice to give themselves a fighting chance.

And clubs still find it hard to win at the Camp Nou or Bernabeu, although Juve triumphed 3-1 in Madrid in the quarters against an uncharacteristically feeble Real.

Instead it was finely poised for Roma to repeat their Barcelona heroics if the Reds relaxed and clock watched. While Jurgen Klopp's men never looked like losing the tie, they still let in four away from home, which is rarely a recipe for victory.

In the Europa League, as expected Atletico Madrid advanced having played away first at Arsenal, although Salzburg, despite having had a lot to do after going down 2-0 at Marseille in the first leg, pulled the scores back to 2-2 before succumbing to an extra-time winner; more proof of the edge playing at home second gives you.

Out of interest, in this year's Champions League knock-out stages, the Round of 16 saw a 4:4 result between clubs who played at home first or second going through but the Quarter Finals saw a 3:1 win for the teams playing at home second (Bayern, Real and Roma) with only Liverpool bucking the trend.

In the semi finals it finished one apiece; 8:6 to the second leg home sides overall then.

By contrast, the Europa League's Round of 16 saw only two of the eight clubs playing the second leg at home advance, with winners split evenly 2:2 in the quarters and one-all in the semis.

In total in the 2018 European knock-out stages therefore, the teams playing the second leg at home advanced 13 times while those playing it away got through 15 times, evidence that the popular assumption of the being drawn away first being intrinsically more beneficial is a bit of a myth.

That default relief that fans feel at the time of the draw might be a red herring as obvious yet underrated factors such as hunger, resilience, ability and that old chestnut called confidence are more telling when it comes to overcoming your opponent.

There is also the matter of the away goals rule to consider of course, a real dash of vinegar in the dressing.

The away goals rule shortens ties by avoiding the need for extra-time and penalties, but otherwise serves little purpose and is probably counter-productive if it was intended to promote attacking play.

It was introduced in the 1950s to avoid the need for a third eliminator in the event of an aggregate draw and in an age when few Europeans travelled overseas and propeller-driven aircraft took longer to fly from city to city and where local food and customs were real culture shocks to footballers.

Several voices have been raised in recent years questioning the law's continued existence and frankly UEFA should have no qualms about proposing its deletion and then removing it, as they did with their Golden Goal (1993-'03) and Silver Goal (2003-'06) rules.

These latter laws were abolished because they had not let to more attacking play or seemed to needlessly curtail games which had been action-packed.

The away goals rule similarly changes the nature of European ties. In the first leg, home sides are often over-cautious to avoid conceding an away goal while the away side defends en masse in the hope of snatching a breakaway goal, leading to a cagey match of few chances or open play.

In the second leg, a team with a first leg away goal can then bunker down at home, reducing the likelihood of an entertaining match for the spectators.

Permutations fly around whenever a goal is scored, the lead swings to and fro and a final advancement on away goals never seems wholly satisfactory. Is extra-time and penalties really the worse alternative?

Someone has to play the second leg at home of course, which in theory hands them an advantage if the tie goes into extra-time, although the away goals rule could be argued to be a counterweight to that.

Overall however, the rule's application damages the nature of what should be an open and fear-free contest where not only the best team wins but attacking and attractive play is rewarded.

When domestic cup competitions have only one leg, it is interesting this possibility has never been raised in terms of European cups, although it is inconceivable the money-mad organisers would agree to halve the number of matches played, while conspiracy theorists would have a field day if particular clubs were repeatedly handed home draws.

So we have two legs, but the away goals rule seems to complicate matters unnecessarily in an age when playing overseas holds no terrors or unforeseen shocks.

The moral of this season's UEFA competitions however is that clubs have to treat the second leg as intensively as the first, irrespective of the away goals rule or where the score stands at what after all, is only half-time.


UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL, KIEV 26th May

Real Madrid v Liverpool


UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL, LYON 16th May

Atletico Madrid v Marseille


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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