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UEFA Champions League

The dreaded away goals rule: Why Bayern's failure to score at Anfield could be a blessing for Liverpool

4:00 PM GMT+4 20/02/2019
Jurgen Klopp Liverpool 2018-19
Away goals could prove decisive in the return legs of both Liverpool-FCB and Lyon-Barca but will both away teams on Tuesday regret not attacking more?

The spectre of the away goal haunts every Champions League knockout tie.

Even when an away goal is not in play, the very thought of it pervades matches; coaches on either side too aware of its significance.

The onus on the home team is not to concede one, as we saw on Tuesday night when Lyon and Liverpool held Barcelona and Bayern Munich scoreless. In Lyon’s case they might consider it a job well done but there will be fears about what Lionel Messi and Co. might do at Camp Nou.

In the other tie, the scoreless draw would appear to be better for Liverpool than Bayern.

Given the hosts at Anfield were missing Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren from the centre of their defence, they will be relieved and hope to be never as weakened in the heart of their defence for a big knockout tie again.

The prospect of scoring in Munich is a realistic one, especially considering how unpredictable Bayern have been in a defensive sense this season under Niko Kovac.

If they can repeat what four Bundesliga teams and Ajax have done this season, then Liverpool wil go through. Namely score and prevent Bayern winning. They are capable of doing both.

Last Friday away at Augsburg Bayern were 1-0 down to a Leon Goretzka own goal inside 15 seconds. Bayern are not a clean sheet machine and Liverpool will fancy their chances, especially with firebrand defender Joshua Kimmich out of the return through suspension.

Jurgen Klopp described the result afterwards as not perfect, but enough. These were two well-matched teams engaged in a very even and watchable contest. Liverpool should draw confidence from that because in Van Dijk they were arguably missing their best player, who will return for the second leg.

Bayern – for their part – probably obtained a better result than they themselves expected. The travelling press pack the night before the game engaged in a traditional prediction contest while out for dinner. There were 60-odd journalists over from Germany and the large majority picked Liverpool to win on the night.

This is a Bayern side in transition; beatable given they are without key players and at the same time attempting to reduce the age of the squad. Of the XI that started here, only Manuel Neuer, David Alaba and Javi Martinez were at the club when they won the competition six years ago.

And life under Kovac has not been straightforward as evidenced by the fact that they are not – yet – top of the Bundesliga. That honour goes to Borussia Dortmund currently although their recent wobbles might well open the door to Bayern and see them eliminated from the Champions League.

They are Germany’s Liverpool this season; the challengers to the team on a higher budget and with the title in their trophy cabinet. Bayern are Manchester City; looking to recover their swagger once and for all and ease their way to the front.

That is easier said than done, even more so when the team has played so inconsistently. Perhaps that inconsistency has fed into their Champions League performances. They are still Bayern Munich after all but played conservatively at Anfield, always conscious of the threat Liverpool could hit with on the counter attack.

They conceded far too many chances in the first half when Liverpool could have gone two goals up. Their reluctance to come out and play indicating a side terrified of what might happen if they did just that.

But that meant the game was blunted because Liverpool for different reasons were doing similar. They have been faultless at home in this competition for the past couple of seasons but facing a team containing James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski naturally a little wary of leaving too many gaps in and around Fabinho and Joel Matip.

There was a sense of nervousness in the way they attempted to play out from the back through a makeshift central defensive partnership. Lewandowski, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman were close to capitalising at one stage or another.

But Bayern did not pursue that away goal as if their lives depended on it. And in truth that dulled the contest. Neither team was exactly happy to leave with a share of the spoils but not heartbroken either.

It leads to a strange three-week void where nobody is exactly sure where anybody stands. Statistics will be wheeled out to show which side is the likelier to progress and in what circumstance. Those numbers would tend to favour Bayern; Liverpool are rotten on their travels so far this season in Europe and there has been no indication that they are fighting their way out of that three-game slump. Factor in last season’s semi and final and Liverpool have lost five outside Anfield on the bounce.

But all it takes is one chance; one that came in as little as 13 seconds against Augsburg.

This then was the kind of game which puts UEFA’s reappraisal of the away goals rule into perspective. There is an annual coaches fourm – headed by Arsene Wenger – which in September came to the conclusion that the away goals rule had outlived its purpose.

When it was established in 1965, the away goals rule came at a time when football was more or less a different sport. Progress in the fields of scouting, analysis, travel, logistics and facilities mean away trips are no longer what they once were.

Back then if a team went away in Europe it was expensive and quite often fruitless. They did not know what kind of opposition team or pitch would be waiting for them and so the default tactic was duck and cover.

So in time for the 1965 Cup Winners’ Cup, UEFA decided to incentivise going away and scoring. The establishment of the away goals rule showed teams that losing 3-1 was better than losing 2-0. Over time it led to home teams becoming ever more conservative, all the way up to Tuesday night.

It was the archetypal match in the analysis of what the away goal does and how it affects ties.

The home team playing cagily against a higher-seeded away opposition? Check.

The higher-seeded team playing cagily that goals could well be prospected more easily in the home leg? Check.

It’s no wonder UEFA is looking at abolishing the rule, but we are no more aware of what yet will replace it. What kind of game theory will take hold if away goals no longer “count double”? We would appear certain to see more extra time and more penalties.

At the moment we have a situation where the away goals rule is indeed fit for purpose in second legs. That’s when one goal can turn defeat into victory or vice versa. Those stakes are impossible to find anywhere else in the sport. But the counterbalance to that is the knife-edge, tentative play in the first legs as we saw on Tuesday.