UEFA Champions League: It’s important to see Benfica and Napoli in the mix

THE UEFA Champions League quarter-finals kick-off tonight with Benfica hosting Inter Milan and Manchester City welcoming Thomas Tuchel and Bayern Munich to the Etihad Stadium. Tomorrow, Real Madrid are at home to Chelsea and there’s a Serie A derby with AC Milan and Napoli coming face to face for the second time in under a fortnight. Five of last season’s eight are back, but there’s an interesting change to the composition in that Italy has no less than three clubs involved, their highest since 2018 and in the past decade.

Benfica and Napoli have been two of the most exciting teams in the competition this season and for the Italian league leaders, it is unfamiliar territory. There’s good reasons to be enthused by their presence, not least for their goalscoring exploits. Benfica, a club with a fine history and two European Cup triumphs (1961 and 1962), deserve to be there given their very tough road through the qualifying and group stages. 

They’re top of the Primeira Liga at present with a seven point lead over rivals Porto, despite losing the top two clash last weekend by 2-1 in Lisbon. Benfica are one of Europe’s best supported clubs – all of Portugal seems to have some form of emotional attachment to them, apart from those who live in Porto! – and average 56,000 at their home games. They have two free-scoring forwards in João Mario and Gonçalo Ramos, who have 48 goals between them in 2021-22. 

Their opponents, Inter Milan, are in fifth place in Serie A but they have lost 10 of their 29 games. It’s win or bust for the Nerazzurri, but they are on a poor run at the moment, losing to Spezia, Juventus and Fiorentina and drawing with Salernitana. They are in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia and have a second leg with Juventus coming up (they drew 1-1 in the first leg). Inter’s top scorer is Lautaro Martinez with 17 goals but the return of Romelu Lukaku on loan from Chelsea has not been a success for various reasons. Inter remain one of Italy’s most popular teams and average over 72,000 at the San Siro for their home games, most of whom we will be there at the second leg to see if they can add to their three Champions League titles (1964, 1965 and 2010).

Manchester City, who face Bayern Munich, are chasing Arsenal at the top of the Premier League and after the last round of matches, Pep Guardiola may see an opportunity to snatch the title after being behind the Gunners for most of the season. Arsenal’s draw at Liverpool reduced the gap at the top to six points and the two sides have to meet at the Etihad. City also have a game in hand, so that big game with Mikel Arteta’s men could really decide who becomes champions. City are also in the last four of the FA Cup, so the hallowed treble is still on for them. Erling Haaland now has 44 goals, so Bayern Munich will be up against it, especially as their opponents are desperate to win the Champions League

Bayern’s new manager, Thomas Tuchel, won the competition in 2021 with Chelsea, but he was surprisingly shown the door by the club’s new regime earlier this season. In hindsight, the Londoners made a big, hasty mistake, but it is history now and Tuchel is back in the spotlight with Bayern. The Bavarians are top of the Bundesliga, but they have a genuine challenger this season in Borussia Dortmund, even though Tuchel opened his account with a stunning 4-2 victory against BVB. Only two points separate the clubs, so Bayern may have to fight until the very last game to make it 11 in a row.

Tuchel’s old club, Chelsea, travel to Real Madrid with Frank Lampard in the hot seat until the end of the current campaign. The holders know how to retain their trophy and although they are not the Real of old, they demonstrated against Liverpool that they can still produce stunning moments. Chelsea, like Liverpool were, are vulnerable at the moment, and it could be a very nervous evening for Lampard’s charges. But it should be remembered that Chelsea can also produce stunning football in the Champions League, but this may be precisely the wrong time to play Real Madrid, who have virtually relinquished their La Liga title to Barcelona.

The other quarter-final between AC Milan and Napoli gives the Serie A champions-elect the chance to avenge a stunning 4-0 home defeat at the hands of the Rossonerri on April 2. The problem is they are still without Victor Osimhen, their Nigerian striker who has been in outstanding form. Osimhen, who has 25 goals this season, has an abductor injury that will keep him out of the first leg in Milan. His form has made him a target for the big clubs around Europe and Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Chelsea have all shown an interest.

Napoli’s form in Europe has matched their exceptional domestic performances, scoring 25 goals in eight games and conceding just six. They have had some tough opponents, notably Liverpool and Eintracht Frankfurt. AC Milan’s trump card is they know Napoli so well, so they will go into this tie confident, despite being inconsistent this season. After beating Napoli 4-0 away from home, they then drew 0-0 with lower mid-table Empoli at the San Siro. They have won just one of their last five Serie A games.

Benfica, Napoli and even AC Milan in the quarter-finals is good to see, if only to provide an alternative to the domination of Spain and England in recent years. Since 2013-14, the average number of Spanish teams in the last eight is 2.3 per season, while England has had almost two representatives each year. The Champions League is allowing us to hope for a surprise or two, but how often has it been a case of “who will Real Madrid play in the final this year?”. 

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?.