With the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals set, we take a look at the more intriguing side of the bracket that features a foursome of clubs with rich histories on a resurgent path.
The recent UEFA Champions League draw has brought up a very intriguing situation for the remainder of the competition. From the latest editions of the tournament, it’s seemed to have been a merry-go-round of the same clubs in and around the final. The likes of Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City seem to be there or thereabouts every year, leading to a lot of questions about the state of European football and the integrity of this tournament.
But this draw has mixed it up — not only are three of those aforementioned giants on the same side of the bracket (Liverpool was eliminated in the round of 16), but the other half has brought in clubs that we’ve either never seen in this stage before, or haven’t seen in a while. It could set up one of the most entertaining semifinal rounds in recent memory.
Napoli is flying high in Serie A, currently leading the table by 19 points. If they were to win the Scudetto this season, it’d be their first since the days of Diego Maradona in the 1980s. A well-drilled team who are ferociously entertaining to watch sit in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, a tournament that they’ve yet to add to their cabinet. Victor Osimhen and Kvicha Kvaratskhelia are their two starboys and are rightly so getting all the plaudits. These two, along with the rest of the team, have been performing superbly all season and are now sitting in a position where many are backing them to go on to win it.
The two Milan clubs have past glory. Inter have won it three times, most recently under Jose Mourinho in 2009-10. They only narrowly beat Porto this time around, though, with a 1-0 aggregate win. And the draw has brought them another Portuguese team in Benfica, avoiding Italian counterparts Napoli and city mates, Milan until potentially the semifinal.
Speaking of which, Milan has won the Champions League seven times, meaning they’re the second most successful team in the tournament. Their last, though, was in 2006-07, when they beat Liverpool. This season, they squeezed past Tottenham with a 1-0 aggregate win, mirroring their crosstown rivals to narrowly scrape through to the quarterfinals. Despite a recent run of games, Milan hasn’t been great all season. It’s a big deal that the club has managed to reach this far in the tournament.
Italian football has suffered a lot over the past few decades, for many reasons. Financial issues, playing quality, and the absolutely monumental boom of the Premier League have all played factors in the slight diminish of the league. What we seem to be seeing now, though, is a resurgence in Europe as Italy stands as the most represented nation. It’s the first time three Italian clubs have reached the UCL quarterfinals since 2005-06.
And due to the tournament tree, there’s a high chance an Italian team will reach the final, which is refreshing. The remaining team on this side of the draw is Benfica. The Portuguese club last won it in the ’60s, led by club legend Eusebio. The only other Portuguese team to win the competition is Porto, winning it in 2003-04 under Mourinho. With Benfica in and amongst it all, the route to the final is invigorating from a neutral’s perspective.
Benfica and Napoli seem to have proved the most prominent in the tournament, with both emerging victorious in their previous ties convincingly. That can’t be said for the two Milan teams. And with the quality on the other side of the Champions League tree — Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Chelsea, all who have either won or finished runner-up in recent tournaments — both Inter and Milan must step their level up if they want to hoist the trophy come May.
I see this as a slight resurgence, offering a shimmer of light in an ever-darkening game. While these four teams are seen as historically successful (albeit, some more than others), it’s an exhilarating feeling that we will see one of them return to the final after such a long absence.
My instinct is backing Spaletti’s Napoli to go on to win the whole thing, but maybe that’s the bias in me (they are my second-favorite team, after all). The two Milan teams have been pretty hit-and-miss in Serie A this season and, as aforementioned, scraped by in the last round. Benfica sits 10 points clear in the Portuguese league so it’d be unsurprising to see them advance past Inter. I’ll stick my back out and say it’s going to be a Napoli vs. Benfica semifinal, with Napoli advancing from that.
Whatever the outcome of this tournament, we must all take it as a small win to see one of these four teams competing in the final. It shows there’s space to redistribute the sporting power in European football and allow more pathways for success for others like it. We must also take it as a positive that Italian football is seeing such a representation because after all, calcio is beautiful.