Champions League last eight: The return of Italy

THREE big-name Italians, one Portuguese and only a single representative from Spain; the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals have some familiar names, but there’s some notable absences such as Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool. Although it’s not a dramatic sea change, it is refreshing to see teams like Napoli and Benfica in the mix and not one but two Milans. And although their fans may not be happy, it is also good, and one might say healthy, that the emphasis shifts away from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

There is a reasonable chance we will have a new winner of the competition; Manchester City and Napoli are the only two of the eight who haven’t won the Champions League, although both have European silverware under their belt – City the now defunct Cup-Winners’ Cup and Napoli the UEFA Cup when it was a strong and arduous journey to glory. 

Manchester City have become last eight regulars and have been there seven times in the past decade. Only FC Bayern (9) and Real Madrid (8) have been there more since 2013-14. They’ve not had the hardest route to this stage, but they have been unbeaten in their eight games. They reminded everyone of their underlying strength with their Erling Haaland-inspired 7-0 humbling of RB Leipzig and with the Premier League title possibly going to London, the Champions League – their elusive holy grail – will be the priority. Certainly, the fact that Pep Guardiola has said in the media his regime will be judged on European success hints he’s going all-out to tick that box.

The other Premier League side, Chelsea, are not in great shape at the moment, but they demonstrated their Champions League credentials by disposing of Borussia Dortmund. Chelsea’s two triumphs in the competition (2012 and 2021) have both come when few would have predicted success, so this is just the sort of situation they might relish. However, from afar the club looks in limbo at the moment and 2023-24 will be a year when expectation rises through the roof of Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were the last new winners of the Champions League in 2012.

Napoli have had a tremendously cavalier campaign and should be confirmed Serie A champions for the third time in the next few weeks. They score goals for fun and in Victor Osimhen, they have one of Europe’s most coveted strikers. He scored twice against Eintracht Frankfurt as they cruised into the quarter-finals 5-0 on aggregate. Napoli have been exciting in their Serie A and Champions League games, but how would they fare against, for example, City, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich? 

Of the three Italian sides, Napoli are currently the most formidable, but the Milan pair know how to grind-out results – hence the way they both overcome Tottenham Hotspur and Porto. It has to be noted that Chelsea, even in their muddled state, beat AC Milan twice and Bayern Munich comfortably won both matches in the group stage. Both Milan and Inter seem to have suspect defences and have conceded almost twice as many goals as Napoli in 2022-23. Nobody really expects either of them to win the Champions League, but equally, few expect them to go quietly.

First time winners of the European Cup/Champions League

1Real Madrid1955-56Spain
3AC Milan1962-63Italy
4Inter Milan1963-64Italy
6Manchester United1967-68England
8Ajax Amsterdam1970-71Netherlands
9Bayern Munich1973-74West Germany
11Nottingham Forest1978-79England
12Aston Villa1981-82England
13Hamburg1982-83West Germany
15Steaua Bucharest1985-86Romania
17PSV Eindhoven1987-88Netherlands
18Red Star Belgrade1990-91Yugoslavia
20Olympique Marseille1992-93France
21Borussia Dortmund1996-97Germany

Real Madrid, who are trailing Barcelona in the league, find they are on their own as flag-bearers for La Liga. In six of the last 10 years, Spain have had three reps, but in two of the last three, only one yellow and red flag has made it through. But Real have the experience and know-how of winning Champions Leagues on a regular basis and it rarely correlates to the annual power struggle in Spain. In fact, who fancies two-legs with Carlo Ancelotti’s seasoned team? Their record against the current quarter-finalists is a win rate of 75% and although they still have ageing virtuosos in their line-up, they manage to pull it off regularly in big games. Look at the way they pulled Liverpool apart and then did enough at the home to sew things up. In order to win the competition, to quote the old adage, Real Madrid have to be beaten at some point. Any takers?

Bayern Munich may fancy it, but they are not the #FCB of Lewandowski and Muller when they were at their peak. They had a very challenging group that included Inter Milan and Barcelona and then faced Paris Saint-Germain. Nobody can say they have had it easy.  But they’re not getting it all their own way in the Bundesliga, either. They may have lost only two games, but they find themselves in a genuine title race this season, with Borussia Dortmund just two points behind them after 24 games. The two sides meet on April 1 at the Allianz Arena, 10 days before the Champions League quarters get underway.

The outsiders are undoubtedly Benfica, who have had an outstanding year and also came through a hard group that included PSG (Messi, Neymar, Mbappe et al) and the fading force of Juventus. They had to go through two qualifying rounds to get that far, beating Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv and Midtjylland of Denmark. They overcome, with some panache, Belgium’s Club Brugge, managed briefly by Scott Parker, in the last 16 (7-1 on aggregate). Benfica have also been excellent at home and have an eight-point lead over Porto in the Primeira Liga. They continue to be canny operators in the transfer market , selling over € 250 million worth of players this season and took advantage of the World Cup halo syndrome by selling Enzo Fernandez for €121 million to Chelsea. They still have two outstanding front men in Joao Mario and Goncalo Ramos, who have netted 44 goals between them. The latter will surely be on someone’s shopping list this summer.

So who will win the Champions League this season? The favourites will surely be Real, Manchester City and Bayern, but not in that order. Then maybe Napoli and Chelsea with anything from AC Milan or Inter being a shock victory. Benfica, for all their excitement and heritage, don’t look to have too much chance. It would be nice, though, wouldn’t it – Napoli v Benfica?.

Serie A: See Naples and get beaten

ANOTHER victory for Napoli, their 17th in 20 Serie A games, has more or less handed the scudetto to Gli Azzurri so much so that even José Mourinho, hardly a defeatist, has congratulated the club on being champions. This is almost unprecedented for only 20 games have been played this season and there are still 18 to go. But 13 points is a substantial cushion for Napoli,  and althoughcan still go wrong, it is increasingly looking as though the residents of the Napoli cemeteries are going to woken from their slumbers for the first time since 1990.

There’s no denying Napoli are just about the most compelling team to watch these days, playing attack-minded football that has yielded 48 goals so far. They are also the only team to maintain consistency – just look at AC Milan, the reigning champions, and their recent form – losing heavily at home to Sassuolo and getting a thrashing from Lazio after they ridiculously travelled to Riyadh for the Super Cup, won by neighbours Inter.

Inter Milan themselves have been careless at times and were recently beaten 1-0 at home to Empoli. They bounced back with victory at Cremonese, but they are not the Inter of two years ago. They have lost too many games and may need some defensive reinforcements. They are, apparently, interested in Manchester United’s Harry Maguire and/or Victor Lindelof.

5AC Milan201154372938

It has been a strange season in Italy, though. The nation said farewell to a football legend in Gianluca Vialli and the national team was absent from their second successive World Cup in November/December. Sampdoria, the club where Vialli won the scudetto in 1991, are in serious financial trouble and could be facing bankruptcy. They are also struggling at the foot of Serie A, along with Hellas Verona and Cremonese.

Furthermore, scandal has reared its ugly head once more in Italy, with Juventus suffering a 15-point penalty and it could possibly get worse. But crowds seem to be in the ascendancy with an average of 28,400 overall and 72,000-plus attendances at both Milan clubs and over 60,000 at Roma. Napoli are getting almost 41,000 at their home games. If the Juve issue snowballs, will that affect public appetite for football?

Italian clubs have performed reasonably well in Europe in 2022-23. Of the four Serie A sides in the Champions League, only Juventus failed to win through to the knockout stage, losing five of their six group fixtures. They will face Nantes in the Europa League, alongside Roma, who have been drawn against RB Salzburg. The Champions League sees Inter versus Porto, AC Milan against Tottenham and Napoli playing Frankfurt. With the fine form of Napoli in the competition so far – 20 goals in six games and five wins – could the southern Italians be possible contenders for the most prestigious trophy in European football? Lazio and Fiorentina are in the last 16 of the Europa Conference League and will play FR Cluj and Braga respectively.

Napoli have been relentless since the first week of the campaign, and after beating Juventus 5-1, earned superlative headlines such as “the Napoli hurricane”. Their firepower comes from Victor Osimhen, who has netted 14 goals so far and is the front-runner for the Capocannoniere award for the Serie A top scorer. Osimhen has been in remarkable form and at 24, is undoubtedly on the shopping list of a lot of clubs. He’s valued at € 84 million by Football Benchmark, but he would surely go for closer to € 100 million should Napoli decide to let the Nigerian move on. He’s under contract until June 2025. Napoli’s other star man at present is the 21 year-old Georgian midfielder, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has contributed more assists than any other player in Serie A this season.

The Juventus domination of the past decade is definitely at an end. If Napoli win the title, it will be the fourth different champion in a row. That has to be good for Italian football, indeed the European game.