Each Champions League campaign is unique. This is due to both the passage of time and the special chaos created when hundreds of soccer games get thrown together into one competition, but no two seasons are alike in any particular way, even if the end result is the same. The 2021-2022 edition of Europe’s finest club competition was different for all the usual reasons, but the biggest rule change of the season somehow didn’t impact it at all until the very last match before the final. Naturally it wound up making the biggest difference in what wound up being the event’s best match.
Real Madrid, that undead underdog and the most frequent winner in Champions League history, completed one of the most unlikely comebacks in the competition’s history, besting Manchester City 6-5 on aggregate after trailing 5-3 until the dying minutes of Wednesday’s second leg. The best part, perhaps unexpectedly, is that the Spanish league champions did not need the help of the not-so-dearly departed away goals rule. They did it the old-fashioned way, which is not to say that it was easy. Anyway, R.I.P away goals, I won’t miss you.
First, a quick explanation on what the away goals rule actually was. In years past, since 1967, clubs scoring away from the friendly confines of their own stadiums received a bonus for those goals when a match-up came down to a tie aggregate score. Let’s take this semi-final match as an example. Thanks to two stoppage time goals from Rodrygo, the less-heralded Brazilian youngster at the vanguard of Madrid’s attack, the score stood at 5-5 at the end of regular time.
Because of Madrid’s three goals last week in Manchester, that meant that Los Blancos would have advanced simply because of where they scored their goals; City, by comparison, only had Riyad Mahrez’s stunner on Wednesday for its own away goals tally:
But that rule is dead, which means that instead of ending Wednesday’s game with a tie score aided by Madrid’s miracle magic in the first leg, the two clubs took a quick break and headed back out for 30 minutes of extra time that would not have been played in previous editions of the tournament. This gave City a chance to regroup and potentially save itself from yet another Champions League disaster, and it gave Madrid the opportunity to put one hell of an exclamation point on its way to a eighth Champions League final, and 17th European final overall.
Thanks to a bit of a sketchy penalty call, one of those things happened: After Rúben Dias was called for a foul in the box, Karim Benzema—it could not have been anyone else after the season he has had, and after he drew the penalty in the first place—stepped up to the spot and put Real, deservedly and with no help from an arcane rule, into a final matchup against Liverpool:
The lack of away goals had a very real effect on the “final” scoreline after 180 minutes, but it also likely had a mental effect on City. If the away goals were in place this year, it’s likely that the visitors would have pushed harder for more goals to secure its standing on Wednesday. They might have gotten those goals, too; as in the first leg, City controlled most of the game, had twice as many shots on target as Real (10 to 5), and generally played like the better team, which it currently is. Instead, though, once Mahrez’s banger went in, City retreated a bit into its shell, comfortable in its two goal aggregate advantage. That turned out to be a mistake. As I wrote last week, you really need to make sure Real’s corpse isn’t still wiggling before you let up
This wasn’t the only tie where the lack of away goals came into play, though it was the one where the rule change had the most extreme effect. Ajax scored two away goals against Benfica in a 2-2 first leg, only to lose 1-0 at home while pushing for a tie-winning third goal on aggregate. The same thing happened to Manchester United: after a 1-1 draw in Madrid against Atlético, the Red Devils lost 1-0 at home in search of a winner. Real Madrid and Liverpool both scored three away goals in the first legs of their quarterfinals match-ups, which might have given them more of a safety net in the face of those Chelsea and Benfica comebacks, respectively. In fairness, both Chelsea and Benfica equalized with three away goals of their own in the second legs, and one more goal by Chelsea in extra time of the second leg would have seen it advance on away goals.
If that last paragraph is a bit confusing to you, then you can see why the away goals rule was always such a bother in this competition. The rule altered game-plans based on where teams happened to be playing, and made it just a bit harder to enjoy the matches in the moment; the necessary calculations at any given moment meant that each goal needed to be analyzed both for how it impacted a particular match and how it played into the away goals calculus. It wasn’t exactly a ruinous rule, as there were plenty of stunning moments aided by its inclusion. One of the most famous comebacks in Champions League history, Barcelona’s 6-1 demolition of Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, was aided by the Catalans needing that sixth goal to overcome not having scored away goals in Paris during the first leg.
Still, though, the end of the rule has already had more of a positive effect than anyone could have reasonably expected in the first season with it in place. In what was the biggest brand name matchup of the knockout rounds, Real Madrid was able to drive a stake through Manchester City’s heart with no outside help at all, give or take a referee decision. I could argue that Real, as it often has during its still-ongoing period of Champions League dominance, was aided by its own black magic, particularly in that first leg. But you can’t legislate dark-arts weirdness out of soccer, and if Real was the worse team across two legs, there are still no excuses to be had for its advancement to the final. Benzema’s goal wouldn’t have had to happen in previous years, but it made a necessary coda to a stunning comeback. Anything less would have not felt quite as majestic, or deserving.