Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Value of an Away Goal In Madrid.

The Champions League returns from a winter break with the first round of the much anticipated knockout ties beginning this week. The recent domination of the competition by the richest and most powerful European countries is again reflected in the make up of the draw of the last sixteen. Traditionally the competition has fallen to sides from either Spain, England, Germany or Italy. You have to go back to 2003/04 to find a winner, Porto, which didn't play in one of the big four leagues, followed by a similar gap to 1994-95 when Ajax lifted the trophy for Holland. Indeed, the last eight finals have been exclusively the preserve of this small elite, with eight finalists coming from England, three each from Spain and Italy and two from Germany.

This year, 11 of the 16 survivors from the pre Christmas group stages hail from either Spain, England, Italy or Germany. It is therefore a simple task to pick out the three outstanding ties of the round, as clubs from the big four countries meet head to head. Arsenal v Bayern Munich and AC Milan v Barcelona should provide a great two legged spectacle, but much of the focus will fall on the meeting of Real Madrid and Manchester United, Ronaldo verses Rooney and Ferguson verses Mourinho. Both sides have enjoyed impressive performances in Europe's premier club competition over the last two decades. Madrid's three titles eclipses United's two, but the English side has seen much more success in the last ten seasons, winning the trophy and appearing as beaten finalists, while their rivals on Wednesday night have constantly failed to progress through the knockout phases.

Recent history notwithstanding, Real Madrid are favoured to progress from the tie. They are given about a 60% chance of qualifying for the last eight and their quality is also reflected in the overall tournament odds. They have a 17% chance of being crowned kings of Europe, behind tournament favouites, Barcelona, but well in front of their immediate opponents, Manchester United, the bookmakers fifth best choice with little more than a 7% chance.

The format of a competition can often influence the likelihood of the best sides ultimately succeeding. A prolonged group phase based on individual home and away games, where two of the four teams progress virtually ensures that a high proportion of the best sides emerge intact for the knockout stages. Once the group stages start, the two legged nature of the ties also plays towards favouring the stronger teams. However, the treatment of away goals is an often neglected aspect of the Champions League format and it can have a major impact on the ultimate outcome of a tie.

Chelsea progressed to the final last season with a 3-2 aggregate win against a much more fancied, and some would say more accomplished Barcelona side. But the victory owed much to the clean sheet kept by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and the away goal scored by Ramires just before half time in Spain. Torres' last second, tie winning goal merely rubber stamped a result that was already assured by the doubling of the away goal already scored in the game.

United find themselves in a less extreme version of Chelsea's match with Barcelona. They are underdogs in the tie, so it is an interesting exercise to see how vigourously Ferguson should try to score one or more away goals and equally how wary Real Madrid should be in case they concede what may appear to be a mere consolation goal, but in the wider context of the tie may prove to be worth much more.

Real Madrid host the first leg and so will be strongly favoured to take a lead to Manchester. However, the current Champions league format applies an away goals rule, whereby away goals count double if the tie is level at full time in the second leg and then again at full time of extra time. So we can use the relative merits of United and Madrid  to compare each teams chances of progressing if Madrid take identical winning margins into the second leg, but do so having conceded differing numbers of away goals.

A simple 1-0 win for Real Madrid, unsurprisingly would make them very strong favourites to progress. A draw of any kind in the return leg at Old Trafford would then be sufficient, as would a win. Defeat by exactly a single goal, provided they scored two or more goals would also see them progress under the away goals rule. Only a repeat of the 1-0 scoreline, only this time in United's favour after 90 minutes would be sufficient to take the game to extra time. Extra time would then give Mourinho's side the option of winning in the extra 30 minute period, drawing the extra time period by a score other than 0-0 and thus progressing again through away goals or if extra time remains scoreless, Ronaldo would have the opportunity to win the game for his side in a penalty shootout.

In short, by keeping a clean sheet on Wednesday night, even if victory is by the narrowest of margins, Real Madrid give themselves a chance of progressing in every scenario where they lose in Manchester by an identical margin to their victory in the Bernabeu.

How A United Away Goal would Alter Madrid's Chances of Qualifying for the Last Eight.

1st Leg Real Madrid Scoreline.  Chance of Real Madrid Progressing.
1-0 78%
2-1 68%
3-2 62%

However should United keep the margin of defeat the same, but manage to grab an away goal, some of the winning margins which would have seen United triumph in the second leg, but be eliminated by an away goal or two are now stacked up to United's advantage. If United lose 2-1 in Spain instead of say 1-0, a 1-0 win at Old Trafford would suffice for Ferguson's side. That scoreline no longer heralds a minimum of an extra 30 minutes and multiple further opportunities for the second leg visitors.

High scoring encounters make for great entertainment, but they are invariably bad news for the first leg home team in a competition which uses the away goals rule. A cautious approach from the hosts should be expected.

How Different Drawn Scorelines Change the Dynamics of a Two Legged Tie.

1st Leg Real Madrid Scoreline.  Chance of Real Madrid Progressing.
0-0 57%
1-1 46%
2-2 37%

The same pattern is seen in drawn games. A goalless first leg wouldn't be a huge blow to Mourinho because it would mean that any draw after regulation time in Manchester would either prolong the tie or hand outright victory to his side. His side would probably still be favoured to win the tie outright. However, that position quickly deteriorates as the first leg result sees more goals, even though the host aren't beaten. At 2-2 after the first 90 minutes, only the unlikely 3-3 or above stalemates are good enough to see Madrid through after 180 minutes or more of football and all other drawn scorelines either see United through or still very much alive in the tie.

An adventurous approach from the visitors in the first leg often reaps rich reward at the conclusion of the tie.

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