Away goals: What did Real Madrid win over Paris Saint-Germain tell us about Champions League’s new rule?


So one week, half a matchday into this new era it’s time for sweeping conclusions. Bring back away goals? How did we ever live with this disastrous bastardization of Europe’s premier sporting competition? Take your pick. Stand your ground. Hear no dissenting views.

Helpfully, Real Madrid’s tie against Paris Saint-Germain provided fodder for both camps. Almost as soon as the final whistle blew on the first leg, the complaints reared their head over the decision to dispense with the added value for road goals. Had they not been brought in to discourage precisely the sort of conservative, borderline paranoid performance that Real Madrid had delivered in the Parc des Princes. It seemed like Carlo Ancelotti, the grand master of the Champions League knockout stages, had been thrown for a loop by this change to the rules. His side had seemingly concluded that the aim of the competition was now to avoid scoring on your travels, such was the conservatism with which they approached the first leg.

It was. CBS Sports analyst Jamie Carragher said at the time, a “terrible decision.” From a certain perspective, he was not wrong. Real Madrid were the first to park the bus in a Champions League tie. Now that there is no reward for proactive play on the opposition’s home ground, they will not be the last.

Equally, perhaps we are merely seeing Ancelotti’s tactics through the prism of away goals because it is a structural change that has been made to European football. The first half in the Santiago Bernabeu offered an equally convincing explanation for why Real Madrid parked so many players behind the ball: Because if they did not, they would be ripped to shreds in transition.

Any time Dani Carvajal so much as dared to inch up the pitch, Kylian Mbappe was ready to pounce. Every concession of possession by Real Madrid seemed to come with a stadium holding its breath, waiting for PSG to romp up the other end.

Equally, as the absence of an away goal loomed large over the first leg, it was notable how Mbappe’s strike on the road seemed to feed into that familiar Champions League cliché, the goal conceded that “in many ways doesn’t change Real Madrid’s task for the night.” Karim Benzema and company knew they would have to score two Wednesday night. That was still the case after they had been cut to ribbons on the counter.

What had perhaps changed was that qualification did not seem quite so out of reach for Real Madrid. A season ago they would have been looking at three goals to dig themselves out of their hole (which they got anyway, but more on that in a moment). That might not have crushed the resolve of this particular team, but there are plenty of others who might subconsciously concede defeat when faced with such a task.

This game never quite felt out of Real Madrid’s reach. Perhaps, that is why Benzema was chasing after Gianluigi Donnarumma in the 61st minute; maybe he would not have been so sprightly in his pursuit of possession if he would have needed another two after. It is, of course, an unknowable counterfactual, but intriguing to speculate on nonetheless.

Much as Real Madrid seemed not to understand how to deal with the away-goals rule in the first leg, so PSG seemed to be trying to compute a thousand new scenarios in their head as their defense was falling apart. In years gone by, the equation was simple — push forward and kill the tie with another away goal. Add another goal to the bill and you would surely be safe, wouldn’t you? Unless you were PSG and you had a habit of blowing sizeable leads in this competition.

All those Parisian neuroses came bubbling back to the surface in the Bernabeu: The humbling at Barcelona’s hands, the collapse at the hands of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United. It was happening again and they did not seem to know how to stop it. That an away goal offered no escape route must have made for the cherry on top for any who relish their difficulties.

Ultimately, away goals never counted in end. Madrid won this tie fair and square. But perhaps the greatest argument in favor of dropping away goals is this: How utterly unreasonable would it have felt if one freak goal for PSG in the last minute had undone all the good work Madrid put in to turn the tide, or more pertinently, if the ludicrous collapse of the Parisians had gone unpunished.

The better team in the decisive moments of this tie did not have to end the contest walking a tightrope where one goal would have turned triumph into tragedy. That seems a fair way to end a big game.





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