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In several sports goal difference or points difference is a form of tiebreaker used to rank teams which finish on equal points in a league competition. The term goal or points difference is used as appropriate depending on whether matches are won according to the number of goals (as in ice hockey or associated football) or according to the allocation of points (as in rugby union or basketball).
Goal or points difference is calculated as the number of goals or points scored in all league matches minus the number of goals or points conceded. Goal difference was first introduced in association football, at the 1970 FIFA World Cup, and was adopted in The Football League in England five years later. It has since spread to many other competitions, where it is typically used as either the first or, after tying teams' head-to-head records, second tiebreaker.
Goal difference has often replaced the older goal average, or goal ratio. Using the goal average scheme the number of goals scored is divided by the number of goals conceded. Goal difference was introduced as it is thought to encourage more attacking forms of play, encouraging teams who are winning to score more goals or points as opposed to defending against conceding. Goal average is also used as the tiebreaker in Australian rules football where it is referred to as "percentage". It is calculated as points scored divided by points conceded multiplied by 100.
If a team's points and goal difference are equal, then often goals scored is used as a further tiebreaker, with the team scoring the most goals winning. After this a variety of other tiebreakers may be used.
The different schemes can lead to strikingly different results. With the following matches:
|Team A||3–0||Team B|
|Team B||6–0||Team C|
|Team A||0–1||Team C|
Under goal average, Team A would win:
Under goal difference, Team B would win:
Goal average was replaced by goal difference due to the former's encouragement of lower-scoring games. For example, a team that scores 70 while conceding 40 would have a lesser goal average (1.750) than another team that scores 69 while conceding 39 (1.769). Or, for the team that has scored 70 while conceding 40, conceding another would reduce the goal average by 0.043 (to 1.707), whereas scoring another would increase it by only 0.025 (to 1.775), making not conceding much more important than scoring again.
Another problem with goal average is that, if a team has conceded no goals, e.g. Group 1 of the 1966 World Cup, a value for goal average cannot be calculated, as division by zero is undefined. Treating it as equal to infinity would mean any victory with no goals conceded is better than any victory with goals conceded, e.g. 1–0 is better than 5–1.
Heading into the final day of the 2006-07 Eredivise season, three teams were still in contention to win the title and the automatic berth to the 2007-08 UEFA Champions League. Of the three teams, PSV was the only one to play its season-finale at home as it would take on Vitesse Arnhem looking to win its third straight league title. Ajax traveled to Willem II looking to win its first title since 2004, while AZ faced Excelsior looking to win its first league title since 1981, after finishing in the top three in the previous two seasons.
The season finale happened on April 29, 2007. Despite having a superior goal difference among the three teams, AZ struggled against Excelsior (who would have to go through a relegation play-off after the end of the game) as it played almost 72 minutes of the match with only 10 men, as goalkeeper Boy Waterman was red-carded in the 18th minute. AZ came from behind twice, with Danny Koevermans tying the match in the 70th minute with his 22nd goal of the season. AZ had a chance to take the lead after its numerical disadvantage was leveled as Excelsior's Rene van Dieren was sent off for yellow card accumulation. AZ never took advantage and a goal from Johan Voskamp in the 90th minute gave Excelsior a shocking 3-2 upset of AZ Alkmaar.
Meanwhile, in Tilburg, Ajax took the lead in the 18th minute on a goal from Urby Emanuelson. Ajax would add a second goal in the 69th monute as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored his 21st goal of the season.
Meanwhile, while those games continued, PSV begun quickly to make up its goal differential as it began the game 2-0 after 10 minutes, but gave up a goal three minutes later and led only 2-1 to Vitesse. In the second half, Ibrahim Afellay began the scoring in the 58th minute before another goal from Jefferson Farfan made the match 4-1.
Following Huntelaar's goal, PSV and Ajax were level on points, but Ajax had the tiebreaker because of goal scored. But in the 77th minute, Philip Cocu put PSV up 5-1 and the team was up on goal difference (+50 to Ajax's +49). The results would stay that way for the rest of the day and PSV went on to win the 2006-07 Eredivisie in one of the most exciting finishes to a season in recent memory.
The 2010 Úrvalsdeild season concluded on September 25, 2010 where three teams were still in contention to win the league title. Leading the table was Breiðablik and knew that a win would give the club from Kopavogur its first ever league title. Trailing one point behind was IBV; the Vestmannaeyjar-based club was looking to win its fourth league title, but its first since 1998. In third place was two-time defending champions FH, looking to win a 26th league title, but trailed Breiðablik by only two points.
Breiðablik traveled to Stjarnan and were held to a scoreless draw, but would get encouraging news. Playing its season-finale at Keflavik, IBV trailed 2-0 with 16 minutes remaining when Denis Sytnik scored for IBV to cut the deficit to 2-1. But two late goals from Keflavik's Magnus Thorsteinsson and Bojan Ljubicic denied IBV a chance to overtake Breiðablik as IBV lost to Keflavik 4-1.
Meanwhile, a Breiðablik draw opened the door for FH as it traveled to Reykjavik to face Fram needing to overturn an 11-goal swing. FH got two goals from Gunnar Kristjansson and a third from Atli Viðar Björnsson (which would tie him with two players for the league lead with 14 goals). However, the 3-0 victory was not enough to deny Breiðablik its first ever league title.
The 2011–12 Premier League was generally a two-horse race contested between Manchester City and Manchester United for most of the season, with both clubs finishing 19 points ahead of third-placed Arsenal. City and United went into their final matches of the season level on points, but with City in first-place due to a goal difference superior by +8. The final matches were relegation threatened Queens Park Rangers at home for City, and Sunderland away for United. City were strong favourites, with United's manager Alex Ferguson stating City would have to do 'something stupid' not to beat QPR.
A Manchester City win would guarantee the title due to a realistically unassailable superior goal difference. If not a win, then City just needed to match United's result at the Stadium of Light against Sunderland. United scored the only goal of their game in the 20th minute, winning 1-0. City scored two goals in injury time to come from behind and win 3–2.
Arsenal won the league championship on goals-scored, after finishing level on points and goal-difference with Liverpool in the 1988-89 season. Arsenal defeated Liverpool 2–0 in the final game of the season to win the championship.
Ahead of the final day of the 2013-14 Nemzeti Bajnokság I season, Debrecen was on course to win its 7th league title since 2005 as its closest competitor Gyor had to overturn a 14-goal swing on the final matchday. Despite losing its season-finale 2-0 to Budapest Honved FC, Debrecen won the title as Gyor only managed to win 5-0 against already-relegated Mezőkövesd-Zsóry SE.
Chelsea 88 points and goal difference 50, Sheffield Wednesday 88 points and goal difference 38.
Leeds United 85 points and goal difference 27, Sheffield United 85 points and goal difference 20.
Burnley 80 points and goal difference 21, Carlisle United 80 points and goal difference 15.
(N.B. in 1996–97 Wigan Athletic and Fulham finished level on 87 points at the top of the Third Division, but Wigan Athletic were awarded the championship on most goals scored, which was the first tie breaker in use in the Football League between 1992 and 1999, although Fulham had the greater goal difference. It reverted to the Goal Difference method from the start of the 1999–2000 season.)
Going into the final day of the 1964–65 season, Hearts were two points ahead of nearest rivals Kilmarnock, with two points awarded for a win. Hearts played Kilmarnock at Tynecastle in the last game, with Kilmarnock needing a 2–0 victory to win the league championship on goal average. Hearts could afford to lose 1–0 or 2–1, but lost 2–0 and Kilmarnock won the championship. Had goal difference been in use, Hearts would have been champions.
In 1986, Hearts lost 2–0 at Dundee on the final day of the season, which allowed Celtic to win the league championship on goal difference. Had the first tie-breaker been goal average, Hearts would have won the championship.
Rangers won the Scottish Premier League in 2003 on goal difference. In the final round of matches, Rangers played Dunfermline, while second-placed Celtic were playing at Kilmarnock. With Celtic and Rangers level on 94 points going into these matches, the Championship would be decided by which team, Celtic or Rangers, performed best during the final round of matches. If both teams won they would each finish on 97 points, and the League would be decided on goal difference. Rangers won 6–1 and Celtic won 4–0, which left Rangers with a goal difference of 73 (101 for and 28 against), and Celtic a goal difference of 72 (98 scored and 26 against) giving Rangers the title.