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 Milan derby is a huge tie, but are they really two of the best teams in Europe?

WE’VE known for a long time the Champions League doesn’t always go to the best team around, but the finalists are often those that took their chances, rode their luck and had a sprinkling of genius when it was really needed. One of the Milan sides will make the final in 2022-23, neither of whom are comfortably among the very top clubs, but they have earned their place by slaloming their way through the competition. 

It has generally been a good Champions League for Italy this season, with three of the last eight coming from Serie A, including the stuttering Champions-elect, Napoli, as well as the last two winners of the scudetto. For those who believe Italy is a vital UEFA nation, the current renaissance is welcome.

 WinsRunners-upNo. of winning clubs First winnerLast winner
Spain19112Real Madrid (1956)Real Madrid (2022)
England14115Manchester United (1968)Chelsea (2021)
Italy12163AC Milan (1963)Inter (2010)
Germany8103Bayern Munich (1974)Bayern (2020)
Netherlands623Feyenoord (1970)Ajax (1995)
Portugal452Benfica (1961)Porto (2004)
France161Marseille (1993)Marseille (1993)
Scotland111Celtic (1967)Celtic (1967)
Romania111Steaua (1986)Steaua (1986)
Yugoslavia111Red Star Belgrade (1991)Red Star Belgrade (1991)

It’s not the first time that AC Milan and Inter have met in the competition, but they never clashed when the competition was truly about champions and holders. This season, three of the semi-finalists were actually champions in the previous campaign (Real, Milan and City), the highest over the past five years. Last season only City fell into that category as champions in 2020-21.

Milan and Inter went head-to-head in 2002-03 in the semi-finals and two years later in the quarter-finals. Both times, Milan went through. Both clubs have been through some lean times in recent years, but having won Serie A in 2021 (Inter) and 2022 (Milan), the co-tenants of the San Siro are certainly happier than they have been over the past decade. However, neither have been consistent enough this season but now they find themselves battling it out for a place in the Champions League final.

AC Milan have not had the easiest of paths to the last four: Napoli, Tottenham, Dinamo Zagreb, Chelsea and Salzburg, Of the four semi-finalists, thee have the lowest average [UEFA] ranking of opponents, an average of 21 compared to Real (24), Manchester City (25) and Inter (30).

UEFA will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of this Milan derby, but will the fans be happy about a domestic affair at this stage of the competition? There have been some interesting precedents, such as the Chelsea v Liverpool saga that saw them play each other eight times between 2004-05 and 2008-09. Liverpool went through in 2005 (controversially) and 2007, while Chelsea won in 2008 and in the quarter-finals of 2009. Real Madrid have clashed with Barcelona and Atlético in the semi-finals and in the latter’s case, the final, while Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund met in the final of 2013. And of course, there’s the famous Liverpool v Nottingham Forest tie in 1978-79. There’s been eight one-country finals in the Champions League, the most recent being Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City in 2021.

At least this season there will not be a one-nation shoot out, but it could be another Spain versus Italy decider, the most common final in the history of the European Cup/Champions League. There’s been eight so far. Or it could be England v Italy, of which there has been four in the past (1984, 1985, 2005 and 2007). Every one of these has involved Liverpool, but they are out and, are probably heading for Thursday night football in 2003-04.

This will be AC Milan’s 13th semi-final in this competition. They have a very good record, 10 wins and two defeats. For Inter, it will be their ninth but their scorecard is less impressive, five wins and three draws.

For the winners, the prize couldn’t be more lucrative from both a prestige or fiscal perspective. The last Italian winner of the Champions League was Inter in 2010, the last Milan win was three years before that. Juventus have been in two finals since those high spots, but they were unable to beat Real Madrid and Barcelona. An Italian win is long overdue, the current run without victory is 13 years, the longest barren period since 1969 to 1985.

These clubs are, of course, part of European football’s pantheon but they are a long way off their peaks. One of them could rekindle the flame of the early 1960s or in Milan’s case, the glory of the late 1980s by reaching the final once more. It will be good to see them back on the main stage, but have either of them got enough to become champions? It will be a big ask.