The Toughest Away Days In The Champions League

By Andrew Puopolo

“It’s not an easy place to go” is a saying often used by soccer commentators when evaluating a team’s prospects in an upcoming away match. Champions League journeys to Eastern European countries like Russia, Ukraine and Turkey are often met with this kind of analysis. With the Champions League group stage starting tomorrow, this got me wondering, are these places actually that difficult to go to, or are commentators just using such hyperbole to fill airwaves? I decided to investigate this claim and try to determine, which place is the most difficult to go to in the UEFA Champions League.

To do this, I analyzed group stage results in the Champions League since 2003/4 season (the first where the current format of 32 teams followed by a 16 team knockout stage was instituted). I only chose Champions League group stage matches because of the differing nature of knockout matches (two legged aggregate ties) and the fact that the Europa League group stage often includes teams that rest key starters. To measure how strong a team (or country) is, I decided to compare the number of points they achieved in their home matches to the number of points achieved in their away matches. I aggregated this across all seasons for all countries and measured the percentage of points taken at home. At the country level, I chose all countries that have won at least 50 points in group stage matches over the time period and for clubs I chose all clubs that have participated in at least five group stages. At the country level, we get the following results:

Scotland comes in at number one. This can be explained by the intimidating atmospheres on hand at Celtic Park (extremely Irish nationalist and Catholic) and Ibrox (extremely pro Union and Protestant) on Champions League nights. Celtic and Rangers are the only two teams to represent Scotland in the group stages of the Champions League since 2004. The Netherlands are a very surprise inclusion at number two given its strong economy, high standard of life and lack of renown for especially intimidating stadiums. Greece, Turkey and Russia are not surprising. In addition, the very successful countries are near the bottom because of a high denominator (in addition to winning many matches at home, they also win many matches away from home thus lowering their ratio)

The club level also tells a similar story, I’ve reproduced the top 10 and bottom 10 teams below (out of the 39 teams who met the criteria):

    Top Ten

    Bottom Ten

The presence of PSG, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona should not be too concerning. The reason for their inclusion is due to their overwhelming success in away matches, which jacks up their denominator. French teams’ struggles at home are interesting to see. On the top end, Celtic Park again overwhelmingly asserts its dominance as a fortress with Istanbul based Galatasaray coming in second.

In conclusion, the places that commentators often mention are “difficult to go to” (Scotland, Ukraine, Greece, Russia and Turkey) when describing a Champions League away day do in fact rank amongst the hardest away days. However, we were also able to uncover other interesting places that are comparatively very strong at home (Netherlands and the 2 German clubs) that one might not originally think of. We also found that extremely developed countries (England, Spain, France) performed comparatively worse in their home matches. This is likely explained by the extra comfort levels experienced by away teams when visiting their countries (and in the case of England, tamer stadiums).

What are your thoughts on this? Is Celtic Park the toughest away day in Europe? Were the results more or less what you were expecting? Let us know in the comments below.

Editors Note: If you have any questions about this article, please feel free to reach out to Andrew at andrewpuopolo@college.harvard.edu.

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5 Comments

  • I like this idea very much. However, this is such a specific picture painted of a moment in time that it actually doesn’t make much sense (in my opinion). I assume for example the number will increase when there is actually something on the line (if you have beat a team previously 6-1, then going there is a lot less intimidating as there’s less pressure). Also the travel time would be a factor I suppose. Like with the US based sports (but then to a lesser extend) this accounts for fatigue, and sometimes even customs problems. And how about weather conditions? Or topics concerning the stadium, as how many visitors are allowed? How many people fit in there anyway? Is it roof-covered? How’s the security?) Is that factored in, too? Looking at all these, I don’t think Ajax for example should be that high (as an Ajax fan) factoring in all of the above topics I mentioned (let alone the fact they sell their top-tier players each season, so they start the season less-intimidating as they are essentially rebuilding most of their squad – and other teams know). So again, interesting subject for sure, and thanks for bringing that up! But not so sure on all the factors that results in the scores. Just looking at home-vs-away points accumulated seems like low evidence to really answer the question.

  • yeah the Scots and the Dutch are not good on the road, doesn’t mean they are imposing at home.

    what the article suggests is that Spanish teams like Real, Atleti, Sevilla, Barca are easy away games because they only take like 55% of their total points at home even if they on an average take close to 60 to 70% of all points available to them but Celtic and Rangers are giants at home because they score like 80% of their total points at home even though on the average they take anything between 25 and 30% all points available.

    there is a simple way to calculate the most difficult away venues. just calculate the points dropped by a team at home against total points on offer at home. the lower the ratio, the more dominant that team at home.

    P.S. the 25 to 30 % statistic is if the Scottish teams have played just about the bare minimum requirement of 50 matches, would be much lower if the number of matches is more.

    the 60 to 70% statistic would ideally mean Spanish teams getting an average of 11 to 13 points in a group stage where the max is 18. while Real and Barca inevitably get this or more, other Spanish teams not always fare that well and hence the average. I may be wrong, I didn’t do the stats.

  • ‘Statistics are like mini-skirts, they don’t reveal everything’
    Sir Alex Ferguson

    Please check the most recent games played against Besiktas in UEFA Champions Leauge and Europa Leauge at their new stadium Vodafone Park. The atmosphere is just intimidating for any away player.

    Also, check why Timo Werner asked to sub out in the first half against Besiktas and what Pepe thinks about Besiktas fans compared to Real Madrid fans.

    As of today, Besiktas has never been beaten at their new stadium, Vodafone Park.

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