Big Changes (Might) Be Coming To Champions League Rules

Away goals could become a thing of the past.

With the 2021 Champions League Final between Manchester City and Chelsea on Saturday, this week has been full of conjecture over the future of the competition. While the Super League appears to have (mostly) died down, a few fairly major changes to Champions League rules could be on the cards, including away goals, substitutions and a “Final Four.”

The biggest change that appears most likely is the Champions League doing away with the away-goals rule, which has been used to determine winners for 56 years. On Friday, the UEFA clubs competitions committee decided to eliminate the rule, meaning away goals could be discarded as soon as the 2021-2022 Champions League and Europa League seasons. The decision still needs to be approved by the executive committee. 

Away goals are used over two-legged competitions to determine who advances in case of a tie on aggregate score. Whichever side scored more goals while playing on the road advances; teams only go to extra time/shootouts if away goals are also even. 

In many respects, this system made sense and worked to thrilling effect. Teams are often more cautious on the road, so this rule encouraged more attacking instead of parking the bus. Additionally, the away-goals rule rewards teams for scoring in harsher environments. Plus, with away goals essentially counting as 1.1 goals, it meant matches could see lead changes swap with a single strike, which is always exciting as a fan. 

But there were always downsides to the rule, which occasionally felt unfair. Scoring an away goal during extra time in the second leg felt more powerful than playing at home for an extra 30 minutes. Plus, there wasn’t much advantage to playing at home during the Covid-19 pandemic as fans weren’t allowed in the stands to cheer on their clubs. 

Reasonable-minded fans have legitimate arguments both for and against the away-goals rule, but it appears it may soon become a thing of the past. 

Something else that could soon disappear in Europe is the two-legged semifinal. This week, UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin said he would prefer to have a “Final Four” week after the success of 2020’s “Final Eight” make-up tournament.

Last year, after the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted the Champions League, UEFA decided to host the final eight teams in Portugal for a single-elimination conclusion to the tournament, instead of having two-legged competitions for every knockout round until the final. While done mostly due to time constraints, it proved successful, replicating the feel of the World Cup knockout rounds. 

Now Čeferin wants to keep that going, albeit with just the final four teams instead of the final eight, playing the semifinals and final in one week in one location.

“I’m in favor of a ‘Final Four’ in the Champions League,” Čeferin told L’Equipe. “It could be great and effective in terms of revenue if done right. But everyone has to give their point of view. We are discussing it, but it is not decided. We liked the ‘Final Eight’ last year in Portugal.”

While a Final Four would be great from a spectacle standpoint, clubs might not appreciate losing out on revenues for their home leg, an obstacle Čeferin has already acknowledged. Plus, it’s hard as a fan to give up two matches between Europe’s elite. 

A Final Four faces bigger challenges than scrapping away goals, as it is currently mostly just an idea floating around. But UEFA recently revamped the Champions League format to include more matches. With more total matches, clubs might be more willing to give up a semifinal home game.

The new Champions League format will not debut until 2024, so there is still time for a Final Four to be instituted, if not by then, for the following season.

Finally, one last Champions League rules change is not restricted to the competition. IFAB, soccer’s law-making body, approved on Friday the use of five substitutes per game through the end of 2022. 

IFAB initially allowed leagues and tournaments to allow five subs — up from three — per match to support player welfare amid a flurry of matches following football’s Covid-19 hiatus in 2020. The Premier League was the only major European league to not take advantage of the ruling this past season, though it was in use in the Champions League and Europa League.

Change is never easy, but change is coming for the Champions League rules and European football in general, whether we want it or not. Exactly how much change we get remains to be seen, but after the Super League shakeup earlier this year, nothing is sacred anymore.

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