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?.

European performance underlines how ludicrous a super league seems

THE concept of a European Super League refuses to go away; as expected, the advocates are regrouping and formulating what they believe will be a more palatable solution for the good of the game. Of course, it still smacks of elitism and will undoubtedly look like a group of big clubs with self-interest at heart. They’ve also tried to make statistics work for them, claiming that young people don’t really like watching the game so much, that their supposed low attention span has made the game too demanding to meet their requirements. This data was taken from the US, which is not the prime audience of European football. Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, has rightly called this research as “fake news”.

Many people believe the very idea of a super league is a product of entitlement, arrogance and presumption. So it is quite comical that when you look at this season’s European competitions, so many of the original 12 clubs are hardly living up to their status. Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Juventus have all tumbled out of the UEFA Champions League, Arsenal and Manchester United are playing UEFA Europa League football and Tottenham Hotspur and AC Milan have yet to secure their place in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Over the five seasons prior to 2022-23, only four clubs from the 12 have made it through to the last 16 in every Champions League campaign: Liverpool, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Juventus. The average number of the rebel 12 that have successfully negotiated the group phase is around eight. This season, it could reach a low of five or six, but most likely, it will be seven. Barcelona, as cash-strapped as they are, have just missed out on the EUR 9.6 million awarded to teams that make the last 16.

While the English clubs have gone quiet on the subject, perhaps realising that any attempt to introduce a super league may be the biggest public relations disaster they have ever experienced, the persistent trio of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus are still hoping their dream project comes to fruition. If it does happen, they may struggle to find willing partners. It would seem unlikely that the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool will be involved, so that would leave the ESL with the task of finding other clubs that will not damage the viability of such a scheme.

There is a strong feeling the ESL will by-pass English clubs and looking at big names like Celtic and Rangers. Maybe a revamped league with these Scottish giants and Ajax, Benfica and Porto would fill the gaps? The narrative also seems to have shifted and, supposedly, the ESL is primarily about combating the growing menace of English clubs, who are increasingly dominating European football.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and clubs invariably go through cycles that change their status. Manchester United and Arsenal, for example, have fallen from their pedestals in recent years, and Tottenham’s position among the elite is quite tenuous and Chelsea are a shadow of their Abramovich peak time. Now Liverpool are having a tough period as they suffer the consequences of lack lustre rebuilding. The Italian clubs have all experienced a fall from grace and suddenly, Barcelona look a very vulnerable club. Only Manchester City and Real Madrid of the 12 seem in truly robust shape at the moment, although Arsenal’s start to 2022-23 suggests the trajectory has turned positive for the north London club.

Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid remain dogged, however, and they have taken UEFA to court, claiming they have abused their power in blocking rival events. The decision won’t be revealed until mid-December, by which time, the ESL story may have taken another twist or two. Meanwhile, the company that is handling the ESL, A22 Sports Management, have appointed a new CEO, Bernd Reichert, who is confident that his clients will get their way.

In reality, will they get what they want? How will these clubs look their peers in the eye if the creation of a self-serving model inclicts mortal damage on domestic football right across the continent? How can they remain members of their local association and their confederation? And most of all, can they honestly tell their stakeholders they are acting in the best interests of the world’s most popular sport?