I had an interesting discussion with some friends regarding Ireland’s upcoming first leg play-off match with Denmark in Copenhagen tomorrow evening. It was interesting because one in our group suggested that a 2-1 defeat would be more preferable than 0-0, insisting that an away goal was vital for Ireland.
I spent the next 15 minutes attempting to convince him that a defeat is never more advantageous than a draw. I don’t believe I changed his mind.
I have come across the psychology behind this view before in different guises; it follows that Ireland will play better if ‘we know what we have to do’, however a draw tomorrow night will be better than any version of a loss.
To put some logic on this, let’s consider an example and assume that the most either team can win or lose by is four goals. For Ireland the best outcome is a 4-0 win. This is followed by 4-1, 3-0, 4-2, 3-1, 2-0, 4-3, 3-2, 2-1, and finally 1-0.
The next best outcomes are all draws, the best being 4-4, then 3-3, 2-2, 1-1 and finally 0-0. The higher draws are more desirable as Ireland score more away goals. These are important but only as a secondary criteria. Away goals only become relevant if the number of goals over both legs are tied.
Assuming Ireland lose 2-1 tomorrow night, the team MUST score in Dublin and also MUST win in order to progress. This constraint cannot be better than a 0-0 in the 1st leg. Assuming 0-0 were to happen, Ireland could progress by neither scoring nor winning (qualify via penalties).
And that is only the Ireland side of the story. Maybe this is why people can make this mistake. They focus solely on Ireland and ignore Denmark's strategy.
Should Denmark win 2-1 tomorrow, rather than draw 0-0, the Danes could actually qualify in Dublin with any match outcome (win, draw or loss). Any win or draw would be enough, so too would a 2-3 or 3-4 defeat. If the game ends 0-0 tomorrow, any loss in Dublin on Tuesday night would see Denmark eliminated.
While an away goal is important, don’t be fooled into the belief it is more important than the match outcome. It isn’t and never will be.