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?”.