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The Away Goals Rule Explained (+ Do They Still Count In Champions League?)  

The Away Goals Rule Explained (+ Do They Still Count In Champions League?)  

The Champions League has a special place in the hearts of many football fans across Europe (and beyond). The competition arguably represents the pinnacle of world football in terms of elite-level quality, and every season this illustrious tournament showcases the majority of the best players, coaches, and teams on the planet to millions of viewers. 

Over the years, the knockout European tournament has produced some wonderful moments that have showcased this high-class football in the most dramatic of settings. And whether it's injury-time winners, shock giant killings, or incredible comebacks in the second leg of knockout stage clashes, a number of different iconic UCL scenes have come as a result of one rule: the away goals rule.

Over the years, the away goals rule has given us some real drama both in the UEFA Champions League and in other competitions. In this article, we're going to explain exactly how this rule works, charting a brief history of the famous footballing regulation and taking you through some of the most legendary Champions League and Europa League away goals that have ever been stuck in the back of the net. Let's get started.

What Is The Away Goals Rule?

The away goals rule relates specifically to knockout football competitions in which two teams play each other twice over two legs. Each team will play a home fixture and an away fixture within this format, and the side that goes through to the next round will be the team that wins the tie on aggregate (aka the team that has the greater number of goals scored across the two legs.

However, aggregate scorelines can create a deadlock; if two sides are evenly matched, it's highly likely that the scores can remain level even after two full 90-minute matches, particularly given that both sides will play a fixture at home and a fixture away from home. And so, over the years the away goal rule has been utilised by certain competition organisers to remove the need for replays, tiebreakers, or matches at neutral grounds.

Effectively, the away goals rule is a method of resolving a tiebreak in football, typically employed in two-legged clashes. This rule states that if the number of goals scored by each team over two legs is equal, the team that has scored more goals away from home will win the tie. If the two teams have scored the same amount of away goals, an alternative method of tiebreaker (such as extra time or a penalty shootout) will be used, but home and away goals will be the first point of call when it comes to deciding the victor.

One of the key factors behind the implementation of the away goals rule is a desire to encourage attacking football. If a team playing away from home knows that a goal from them can help them get the edge even if the aggregate score is tied, they're likely to be a little bit more aggressive and ambitious in their play. This can lead to some extremely exciting football.

Do Away Goals Count In Champions League This Season?

When we talk about away goals, Champions League matches are the events that we think of straight away. However, a recent rule change has led to a transformation in the way we take in UCL knockout stage matches.

In June 2021, it was announced by European football's governing body UEFA that the away goals rule would be scrapped from the start of the following season (2021/22). The rule had been in place up until this point since 1965, but the decision makers at the governing body decided that it was no longer needed within top-level European football.

"It is no longer appropriate for an away goal to carry more weight," said UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin at the time. "The impact of the rule now runs counter to its original purpose as, in fact, it now dissuades home teams - especially in first legs - from attacking, because they fear conceding a goal that would give their opponents a crucial advantage. There is also criticism of the unfairness, especially in extra time, of obliging the home team to score twice when the away team has scored."

The scrapping of the away goals rule has marked a key change in the way the Champions League plays out each season, and many fans miss the drama that was associated with this rule back in the day. However, the UCL isn't the only competition to have had this change implemented in recent seasons.

Do Away Goals Count In Europa League This Season?

When Ceferin's organisation moved to get rid of the away goals rule, it didn't just impact the Champions League. UEFA's jurisdiction also includes the Europa League and the Europa Conference League, the continent's lower-level annual tournaments.

Europa League away goals were outlawed at the start of the 2021/22 season, the same time as the Champions League. Now, if the aggregate score is level at the end of a Europa League knockout second leg match, teams will head to extra time and, if necessary, a penalty shootout.

While this decision has received some criticism, many people who want to see attacking, ambitious football played in the knockout stages of European tournaments were happy with the move. This is because there is empirical evidence that the away goals rule actually reduces the total number of goals scored during soccer matches.

 More broadly, the rule was viewed by decision makers as being unfair due to the fact that it benefits visiting teams in the second leg, when the perceived risk of attacking is generally lower than the first leg, when many teams simply want to keep things tight and stop the opposition from conceding.

Do Away Goals Count In FA Cup?

While UEFA oversees each of Europe's affiliated National Football Associations as well as monitoring European competitions, each individual domestic set-up can manage its own affairs. So when it comes to certain rules, domestic competitions like the illustrious English FA Cup have been able to do things differently.

The FA Cup has never used away goals to decide who goes through in a knockout tie. This is because of multiple reasons. The draw for each round of the FA Cup decides who will play at home in that match, and the tie itself will take place over one leg instead of two. Whoever is the winner on the day goes through to the next round, and if the match finishes in a draw, a replay is played at the ground of the team who played away in the original fixture.

Due to the fact that FA Cup games are only played over one leg, and also thanks to the shorter distances between teams competing in the tournament (which takes place across England and Wales instead of the whole of Europe), there's never been a need for an away goals rule in the FA Cup.

Do Away Goals Count In League Cup?

England's secondary domestic knockout competition is the League Cup, also known as the Carabao Cup. This simple knockout format is contested by every team in the top four divisions of English football (traditionally, all of England and Wales' fully professional teams). Recently, the 2023/24 League Cup was won by Liverpool, after a Virgil Van Djik header in the dying minutes finished off Mauricio Pochettino's deflated Chelsea side.

Unlike the FA Cup, the League Cup does use two-legged ties in one part of the competition, the semi-finals. At this stage, each team will play one fixture at home and one fixture away from home. However, away goals do not count for anything within the League Cup. If the aggregate score is level at the end of the second leg, the tie will go to a 30-minute period of extra time and then penalties if necessary.

However, the League Cup has implemented the away goals rule in the past, relatively recently in fact. These two-legged clashes did utilise this rule as a tiebreaker up until 2018/19, when it was scrapped in favour of a standard extra time/penalties format. At this time, extra time for single-game elimination rounds (eg. knockout games before the semi-final) was also scrapped, meaning that teams now go straight to penalties if drawing at this stage.

The Most Iconic UEFA Champions League Away Goals Moments

UEFA justified its decision on away goals by focusing on fairness, as well as a desire to move away from the 1960s context of the original away goals rule, when away support allocation did not exist in European football and so being at home was a much bigger potential advantage. However, there's no denying that back when the number of goals scored away from home counted for more in UEFA club competitions, we were treated to some incredible Champions League knockout action. 

There was Tottenham Hotspur's famous 3-2 away win over Ajax in 2019, which catapulted them into their first-ever Champions League final in the most dramatic fashion. And in the previous round, the same Spurs side also benefited from the away goals rule to knock out one of the tournament favourites, Manchester City.

Perhaps even more memorably, the 2016/17 edition of the UCL saw Barcelona come back from a 4-0 first-leg deficit to smash PSG 6-1 in the Last 16 of the competition. The away goals rule played a crucial role here; Edinson Cavani's 62nd-minute consolation meant that an aggregate draw would not be enough for Barca, causing them to ramp up their attacks and blast an incredible three more goals past their Parisian rivals, on one of the most extraordinary Champions League nights ever.

Alas, away goals will never again have the same impact on a huge European clash. Football is constantly changing and adapting, and this is just one of the latest developments in that journey. If you'd like to find out more about how the rules of soccer have changed in recent years, check out our recent guide to financial fair play and its importance in the modern game.