So much for home advantage: Deeper in Champions League teams go, the better they fare away
In the five seasons between 2004-05 and 2008-09, Liverpool and Chelsea were drawn against each other on four occasions in the Champions League knockout rounds.
In the first two of those ties, in 2004-05 and 2006-07, Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool progressed to the final after taking out Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the semis. On both occasions, Liverpool played the second leg at their fortress Anfield.
Fortunes reversed in 2007-08 and 2008-09 when the two sides were drawn against each other in the semis and the quarters, respectively. Playing the second leg at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea, under Avram Grant and later Guus Hiddink, knocked out Liverpool on both occasions.
The results of those four ties encouraged belief that the team playing at home last in a two-legged match-up has an advantage.
Chelsea’s stars were accused of suffering from stage fright at Anfield in the second leg in 2005 and 2007, losing both games by solitary goals. The Londoners fared much better when the Merseysiders hosted the opening leg. Chelsea drew 1-1 and won 3-1 on the first leg of their ties at Anfield in 2007-08 and 2008-09 respectively.
In 2008, Benitez acknowledged it prior to the two English rivals’ semi-final tie. “When you play the second leg at home you know the score and so you can manage,” he said.
Even if Juergen Klopp concurs, his Liverpool haven’t walked the talk. In their run to the Champions League final last season, Herr Klopp’s men knocked out Manchester City and AS Roma in the quarters and semis, respectively, playing the second leg away.
This season, they beat Bayern Munich 3-1 away in the second leg of their round-of-16 tie to win by the same score on aggregate.
Against City and Roma, Liverpool rode on blistering performances in the home legs, forcing both opponents to chase the tie in the second, before getting the job done. Against Bayern, Liverpool turned an opening leg goalless draw at home into their advantage when they struck an early goal in Munich, forcing to German champions to play catch-up.
Two other pre-quarter final ties this season gave further evidence of teams being comfortable playing the second leg away.
After losing the first leg 1-2 at home, Ajax shocked the world with a stunning 4-1 thrashing of defending champions Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. One day later, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United overturned a 0-2 deficit from the opening leg at home with a 3-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain in Paris to progress in away goals.
An away trend
A look at the data on Champions League knockout games from 2013-14 shows that in a total of 78 two-legged ties, 51 have been won by teams playing at home last and 27 by those playing away second. In 48 of the round-of-16 games in this period, 34 ties were won by teams playing at home second and 14 by those playing away last.
But here’s the catch: in the round of 16, seeded teams, that is the group toppers, play unseeded ones meaning those finishing second in their groups.
Most of these matches thus feature a strong team against a weaker opponent. For example, the Man City against Schalke fixture this season saw the former win both legs and progress to the quarters on a 10-2 aggregate. The fact that seeded City played at home second isn’t an indicator of it being an advantage as they are significantly stronger than Schalke and would have been expected to win anyway.
Yet four of the eight teams progressing to the quarter-final this season have played away last. The same holds true for 2017-18 as well. This is a sharp rise from previous seasons where the results are tilted in favour of the seeded team playing at home second.
During the same period, the quarter-finals and semi-finals (where there are no seeded sides and draws are made at random) have seen 17 teams hosting the second leg progress as opposed to 13 advancing after being visitors in the second leg. In the semi-finals in particular, the hosts of the second leg have progressed only three times, as opposed to seven for those playing it away.
The semi-final data is in contrast to that of the round of 16 and it is more likely to do with the fact that by the process of elimination only the strongest and more equally-matched teams are left to play the last-four round.
Data on Champions League semi-finals since two-legged semis were reintroduced in 1994-95 throw up some interesting trends.
In the first six seasons, teams playing away last had the upper hand, winning eight out of 12 ties.
From 2000-01 to 2007-08, teams playing the second leg at home fared better, winning 11 of 16 ties.
But from 2008-09 to present, only five times out of 20 have teams playing the second leg at home gone on to reach the final.
There is possibly a case for why some teams might prefer playing away last. Given the importance of away goals in case a two-legged tie ends in a draw, a team playing against an almost equally-matched opposition would prefer avoiding defeat in the first leg at home. A clean sheet in such a game could also come in handy, as it did for Liverpool against Bayern.
This would give teams a sense of security in the return away leg as scoring a goal in this game would be of more value than scoring one at home and even a draw will be enough to take them through.
Man United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer iterated this when his side was drawn to face favourites Barcelona in the quarter-finals. “I prefer away last, like we had against PSG. I’ve always thought if you can get a decent result at home then we know we can go away and hurt anyone like we did at PSG,” he said.