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.

The final the media wanted

AND SO, we have an all-Manchester final for the first time in the FA Cup’s long history. City, in pursuit of the impossible treble, will take on United, who can complete a domestic double if they add to the EFL Cup they won earlier this year.

It is, commercially, a most attractive final and the Football Association will have no trouble accessing a global audience. Winning the semi-finals on penalties is an unsatisfactory way to decide a tie. Brighton had more than their fair share of possession and opportunities to score and they look a more complete team than Manchester United, but thems the breaks as they say.

There have been around 13 previous cup final derbies, although it does depend how you stretch the elastic to classify these games. There have been seven London derbies in the true sense of the word, although clubs like the Wanderers and Royal Engineers were London institutions.

The first was in 1967 (Spurs-Chelsea), the most recent Arsenal against Chelsea in 2020. Interestingly, Chelsea have been in four “Cockney Cup finals” and have lost the lot. There have been two Mersey finals, Liverpool winning both, and if you are liberal about the Birmingham area, West Bromwich Albion have been in four, three against Aston Villa and one against Birmingham. But, as every true Baggie will tell you, West Bromwich Albion is not in Birmingham!

It is a little surprising that City and United have not met before in a major final. In 1926 and 2011, they clashed in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and City won both. In 2020, both were in the semi-finals but both were beaten, City by Arsenal and United by Chelsea. The narrative, of course, will be all about City’s treble chances and at the moment, they are looking quite good. They still trail Arsenal, but the pendulum has swung away from the Londoners and it is almost “advantage City”. If they beat Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the Champions League, you have to fancy them to beat either of the Milan sides. And they will be favourites in the FA Cup final.

Spare a thought for Brighton, however. They have had an excellent season and played some tremendous football. Let’s hope they get the European football they deserve.