• Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

The return of the Champions League, has the round of 16 lost its spark?

ByRoan Clawson

Mar 2, 2024
Champions League Trophy

This week signalled the return of European football’s most prestigious club competition, the UEFA Champions League. The first legs of the eight ties all kicked off in midweek, with European giants such as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Inter Milan all in action, with Bayern being involved in a shock loss away at Lazio. However, there seemed to be a distinct lack of excitement in the build-up and post-match of these ties. The lack of hype is palpable compared to previous seasons, as these round of 16 ties seem to have lost their intrigue to neutral spectators. This leads me to question aspects of the competition: has the expulsion of the away goals rule led to the first legs becoming boring? Is the introduction of the much-maligned new format, incoming next season, a ploy to incite interest from a neutral perspective?

In 2021, UEFA announced they would be scrapping the away goal rule as they believed it was making teams too defensive at home. This was where any goals scored away from home would effectively count for double as, if the aggregate score was level, the team with more away goals would be the victor. In times past, this meant away teams in the first leg always knew they were in the game, as the knowledge that they could grab an away goal to take home, even if they lost the match, kept spirit alive. Interest and excitement among spectators, even during the first leg, were tangible, which was fuelled by the understanding that the tie could turn on its head at any point.

The removal of this rule was an attempt to incite more attacking play from the home team, as UEFA believed the rule was making home teams too defensive. I believe it has done quite the opposite. In the ten seasons before the change in rule, the average goals per game in the round of 16 first legs was 2.86, which starkly contrasted with the 2.13 goals per game since. Furthermore, despite UEFA’s expectation that home teams would adopt a more attacking approach, there was another notable decline in offensive output for home teams, with a decrease of 1.35 to 0.92 goals per game in the first leg of the round of 16 ties. This exhibits a flaw in the recent Champions League campaigns: teams are scoring fewer goals. 

Consequently, a potential explanation exists for the reduced anticipation for these ties that I believe is rife among football fans at the moment, as well as possibly explaining why UEFA is so keen for the new format to be introduced.

 Is a re-shuffle of the competition the answer for UEFA? Or will the round of 16 ties continue to be underwhelming, with the ‘proper’ ties beginning in the quarter-final stage? While the new format has come under fire due to many seeing it as a super-league alternative, I am curious to see how it changes a neutral’s approach to watching the competition. Initially, interest levels will rise but I believe that is just out of pure curiosity, not out of genuine excitement for the games. The evidence is clear that the reintegration of the away goals rule into the Champions League is definitely something UEFA should consider, as the decline in attacking output is glaring. The first legs are now simply the first half; they have no edge or intrigue and after the initial surge of interest in the new format, the same problems will arise if these flaws are not addressed. 

UEFA Champions League Trophy” by daniel0685 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.