A reminder of the glory of Italian football 

MOST people expect the winners of the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Manchester City to be the ultimate victors in the competition this season. There was no shortage of experts tagging the first leg in Madrid as “the proper final”, almost dismissing AC Milan and Inter Milan as also-rans. It is undoubtedly good to see the Rossoneri and Nerazzuri in the latter stages of the Champions League once more and it is encouraging to find five Italian clubs in the semi-finals of Europe’s top three bunfights. But in reality, the co-tenants of the San Siro will not be worrying either City or Real too much.

Quite simply, they have both recovered their poise, winning the scudetto in the past two years, but Serie A remains a long way behind the Premier League and La Liga. One of them will be in the final, which will be good for Italy and for the prestige of the Champions League. Although Inter and Milan are far off their finest days, the road back has started and at least they know the challenge is very clear – somehow, compete with the financial muscle of the Premier League. Five out of 12 teams in the last four will do Italian football no harm at all, making the league more attractive to sponsors, which in turn might close the gap between Italian football and its peer group. A little.

Inter were undoubtedly the better of the two teams in the first leg, by some distance. Milan were surprisingly poor and might have lost by more than two goals. In fact, such was Inter’s superiority, Milan must be relieved they got out of the first leg in anything like one piece. If the suspect penalty hadn’t been overturned, the result might have been worse and the tie well and truly over.

Both teams have not had the best domestic campaigns. After winning Serie A in 2022, Milan have been inconsistent and are currently in fifth place. They went out of the Coppa Italia early and in the Champions League, finished second in a group that included Chelsea, Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb. They disposed of Tottenham and Napoli in the knockout phase. Inter were fancied to recapture the scudetto in 2022-23 but they have underperformed at times. Napoli were by far the best side in Serie A, hence their big margin of success. Inter had a tough Champions League group that included Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Viktoria Plzen. They eliminated Portugal’s finest in Porto and Benfica in the round of 16 and quarter-finals respectively. Inter have also made the final of the Coppa and face Fiorentina on May 24 in Rome.

The Milanese duo are among the best supported teams in Europe and average over 72,000 at their San Siro home. The derby always brings out the partisan in the locals and the atmosphere for the Champions League tie was a reminder of the importance, heritage and passion of Italian football. 

Inter’s two goals came from the impressive Edin Džeko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose combined ages total 71. Inter also have Francesco Acerbi and Matteo Darmian who are in their mid-30s. The average age of Inter’s line-ups is 29.2 which is one of the oldest in Europe. Milan’s team is younger (average 26.4), although Olivier Giroud, who has had a new lease of life since joining the club, is 36 years old. 

As it stands, Manchester City and Real Madrid are among the richest clubs, each generating over € 700 million in revenues per season (source: Deloitte), while Inter’s income was around € 308 million and AC Milan’s € 265 million in 2021-22. Little wonder City and Real have squads with more depth, higher wage bills and have the ability to attract the young and up-and-coming talent of world football. And yet, one of the Milan giants will definitely be in the final and will be reviving memories of when they were truly the kings of European football. It is often forgotten that Milan won the Champions League in 2007 and Inter, under José Mourinho, lifted that rather outsized trophy in 2010. It’s not that long ago, but how the game (indeed, the world) has changed since then.

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