The UEFA Champions League returns tonight, with the competition now in the knockout stages of the 2021-22 edition. We look at some of the key talking points ahead of the action.

Away With Away Goals

UEFA have abolished the away goals rule for the knockout stages of the 2021-22 Champions League, which will no doubt change the way that some teams approach matches. It’s impossible to sum up how this will affect matches without writing 5,000 words plus on the subject (no, this isn’t possible now), so instead, here’s the lazy option of listing five recent KO classics™️ that have seen ties decided on away goals.

2020-21 Round of 16: Juventus 4-4 FC Porto (AET)

Porto took a 2-0 lead in the first leg at Estádio do Dragão before Federico Chiesa grabbed that all-important away goal in the 82nd minute. In the second leg, Porto grabbed a crucial away goal via Sérgio Oliveira’s penalty before a brace from Chiesa took the game to extra time. Oliveira scored his, and Porto’s, second of the night with five minutes remaining in extra time to take them through on away goals, with Adrien Rabiot’s 117th minute strike deemed useless thanks to the rule.

This was Juventus’ second successive season being eliminated from the UCL round of 16 on away goals, following a 2019-20 exit at the hands of Lyon.

2020-21 Quarter Final: Bayern Munich 3-3 Paris Saint-Germain

All the damage was done by PSG in the first leg, with Kylian Mbappé’s brace and a goal from Marquinhos enough to defeat reigning champions Bayern 3-2 in Munich. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s single goal gave Bayern a 1-0 win over PSG in Paris in the second leg, but as we all know when it comes to KO football in Europe when the scores are level: three away goals beats one away goal.

2018-19 Round of 16: Paris Saint-Germain 1-3 Manchester United

Manchester United headed to Paris for the second leg having lost leg one 2-0 at Old Trafford. Their injury-depleted squad looked set for an exit, leading 2-1 but behind 3-2 on aggregate before a 94th-minute penalty was slammed home by Marcus Rashford.

In progressing from this tie, United became the first team in Champions League and European Cup history, at the 107th time of asking, to overcome a 2-0 or greater home first-leg deficit. Without away goals, tired legs and PSG pressure in extra time would have most likely have seen them head through to the quarter finals.

2018-19 Quarter Final: Manchester City 4-4 Tottenham Hotspur

The first leg was a fairly *normal* game, with Spurs picking up a 1-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The second leg was the UCL at its chaotic best (wait until you see what happens in Spurs’ next KO tie).

Manchester City won 4-3 on the night, but Fernando Llorente’s bundled-in effort in the 73rd minute was confirmed to be legitimate via VAR to win the tie, on away goals. VAR was Spurs’ friend on the night, as Raheem Sterling saw an injury-time goal (to complete a hat-trick) denied via the cruel video men. That goal would have sent City through, but then we would have been denied a Champions League classic in the following round, wouldn’t we…

2018-19 Semi Final: Ajax 3-3 Tottenham Hotspur

Ajax scored the vital away goal in the first leg 1-0 victory over Spurs in London, before racing into a 2-0 half-time lead in the second leg at home. Ajax found themselves 3-0 ahead, but with a 1-0 away goals lead as backup. People often say a 1-0 away goals lead is a dangerous one, and that was proved correct.

Lucas Moura scored an astonishing hat-trick with goals in the 55th, 59th and 90(+6)th minute to send every Ajax player to the floor in despair and every Spurs player – and member of coaching staff – running towards the away fans.

A classic UCL moment that wouldn’t have been as dramatic without away goals. Who knows how this game would have developed in extra time?

In an alternate world without away goals, that talented, young Ajax team potentially getting over the heartache of a last-minute equaliser to send the game into another 30 minutes, before scoring a winning goal to take them to the final to face Liverpool?

KO Goal Kings

Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t had the best time under new Manchester United interim/semi-permanent/just-there-for-now manager Ralf Rangnick.

True, he’s their top scorer in all competitions under Rangnick with four goals, but goals are a minimum expectation for the Portuguese striker, plus two of those have been from the penalty spot. His shot conversion rate of 8.7% is under half that of his pre-Rangnick performance in 2021-22 (19.2%), plus his four goals have come from an xG total of 7.6 in his 930 minutes on the pitch.

However, rest assured United fans – the UEFA Champions League knockout stages are where Ronaldo comes alive.

The 37-year-old has scored more Champions League knockout stage goals than any other player (67), with a goals per game ratio of 0.81 – higher than he has managed in the group stage of the competition (0.74).

It’s also worth factoring in that Man Utd’s round of 16 opponents Atlético Madrid have a goal that acts as a magnet to Ronaldo, too. He’s scored 25 goals in 35 matches against Atlético, only scoring more often versus Sevilla during his entire career. Four of his 48 club career hat-tricks have come against the Spanish side, two of which have come in the UCL. No player in the competition’s history has netted more hat-tricks against a single opponent.

Haller: It’s Goals You’re Looking For

Sébastien Haller has already had a phenomenal debut season in the Champions League. The Ivorian striker has scored 10 times in six appearances for Ajax in the group stage of 2021-22, with that tally enough to earn him the competition record of most goals in a player’s first six UCL appearances, overtaking Erling Haaland.

Haller’s 10 goals are already the most by an Ajax player in a single season of Champions League action – overtaking Jari Litmanen’s nine in 1995-96 – but he’s still got work to do to break the all-time seasonal record in the competition.

Unsurprisingly Cristiano Ronaldo dominates the single-season goal records in Champions League history. His 17 goals in 11 games across 2013-14 remains the record, with his efforts in 2015-16 (16 goals in 12 apps) and 2017-18 (15 goals in 13 apps) just falling short, as did Robert Lewandowski’s 15 goals in 10 games across 2019-20.

Haller will have to wait until next week to try and improve his goal tally, with the meeting against Benfica coming in the second batch of last 16 games, but he’s warming up nicely for the occasion. He’s scored eight goals in his last four competitive matches for Ajax, including a hat-trick on Sunday versus FC Twente in the Dutch Eredivisie, taking his overall seasonal goal tally to 28 in 27 appearances.  

Hot off the Press

One of the stories of the tournament so far has been Ajax – and not just because of Sébastien Haller. One of three sides with a 100% record this season, Erik ten Hag’s men scored 20 goals on their way to romping Group C. Almost three years after their impressive run in 2019, Ajax seem ready to repeat that stunt.

But it’s not just about the results. It’s Ajax’s way of playing that has attracted many neutrals.

Ten Hag has got his team pressing aggressively, aiming to win the ball back as quickly and as high up the pitch as possible. Even at Champions League level, Ajax are relentless in their pressing. This season, only Chelsea (91) have completed more high turnovers – winning the ball back within 40m of the opposition’s goal – than Ajax’s 80. No team has taken as many shots following those high turnovers as Ajax (16) and ten Hag’s men have scored four times as a result of a high turnover, double that of any other side.

Their PPDA, or opposition passes allowed per defensive action, of 7.9 is the lowest in the competition, supporting the notion that ten Hag has made Ajax an exciting and energetic goalscoring machine.

Their last 16 opponents, Benfica, couldn’t play more differently. Nélson Veríssimo’s side completed just 56 pressed sequences (read: stopping an opponent’s sequence in three or fewer passes) in the group stage. Of remaining teams, only PSG (48) managed fewer in the group stages. Additionally, Benfica’s PPDA is the second-lowest of teams to qualify for the last 16.

Benfica will look to play quickly and vertically to beat Ajax’s high press. The Portuguese side have launched 17 direct attacks – essentially a proxy for counter-attacks – so far in the competition, the third-highest of all teams.

Get Involved, Son!

It’s common knowledge that Sébastien Haller (10) and Bruno Fernandes (5) lead the goals and assists charts respectively in the Champions League this season. But by using sequence data – which strings on-ball events together – we are able to value the contributions of the players who don’t necessarily score or assist goals but are still integral in the build-up.

UCL - shot_ending_involvements_the_analyst

Luka Modric encapsulate this idea perfectly. The midfielder has only a solitary assist to his name this year in the competition, but we can see from the sequence information above that he is crucial to Real Madrid’s attack, with over half of his total shot contributions coming via being involved in the build-up. This backs up what we see on the pitch, with the Croatian pulling the strings in the heat of Los Blancos’ midfield.

But it’s Modric’s team-mates, Vinícius Júnior and Karim Benzema who lead the pack for total attacking sequence involvements this season. Vinícius has been ever-present in Carlo Ancelotti’s Champions League team this campaign, playing 98% of all available minutes. And he has repaid that faith, with incredible all-round attacking displays so far. His is a different profile to Benzema. The Frenchman is typically on the end of Madrid’s moves, while Vinícius provides from wide areas.

João Cancelo rounds out the top three. The only defender on this list, the Manchester City full back has five goal involvements (two goals, three assists) to his name already – no one in City’s squad has contributed to more. But his underlying numbers are also exceptional. His expected assists total of 3.3 is the most in the competition, and he is heavily involved in City’s shot-creation.

While Haller has rightly taken the plaudits for Ajax’s perfect start, we can’t ignore the impact of Steven Berghuis or Dusan Tadic. It’s Tadic and Berghius who are the creative hub of this team and it’s clear that Haller’s role is to get on the end of those chances. Nine of his 10 goals have come where the Ivorian’s only contribution in that move has been to apply the finishing touch.

Flipping the chart to per 90 values still sees Madrid’s duo of Vinicius and Benzema at the top, and Cancelo and Berguis still feature. But even more Madrid players appear here, with Rodrygo and Toni Kroos ranking highly, showing the depth of talent that Carlo Ancelotti can call upon. Rodrygo is a high-volume shooter when relied on, taking 4.4 shots per 90 minutes. Only Benzema (4.9) has shot more frequently at goal for Real Madrid. Between the three of them, Benzema, Rodrygo and Vinicius have taken half of Real’s total shots (55/111) so far.

UCL - shot_ending_involvements_per_90_the_analyst

Looking at sequence involvements on a per 90 basis also shows the huge influence that Joshua Kimmich has on Bayern’s build-up play as the Bavarians look to repeat their 2019-20 efforts.

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