And then there were four. We now know the four semifinalists in this season’s Champions League: AC Milan, Internazionale, Manchester City and Real Madrid.
Reigning Premier League champions City dispatched Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich — one of the pre-tournament favourites — to set up a rematch of last season’s semifinal against trophy holders Madrid, who made light work of eliminating Chelsea.
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The other semifinal pits local rivals Milan and Inter against each other, after they beat Serie A leaders Napoli and Portuguese side Benfica respectively to set up a clash between two clubs who have won the European Cup 10 times between them.
Madrid will host City at the Bernabeu on May 9 before travelling to the Etihad on May 17, while the two Milan clubs will play their two additional instalments of the Derby Della Madonnina on May 10 and 16.
But which teams will progress to reach the final in Istanbul on June 10, and who will lift the trophy? We asked ESPN writers Gab Marcotti, Mark Ogden, James Olley and Julien Laurens for their predictions and other thoughts on the semifinals.
Who has been the coach of the tournament so far, and why?
Marcotti: Luciano Spalletti, hands down. As a reminder, Napoli are a club that had never been this far in the Champions League and they had outplayed every opponent. And they did it after cutting their wage bill by 30% last summer and letting their supposedly three most important players leave (Lorenzo Insigne, Kalidou Koulibaly, Fabian Ruiz.) Spalletti was also able to channel the passion and intensity of the city of Naples, managing its excesses all season long. That’s a skill too, especially for a guy who, frankly, has sometimes let his temper and his personality get the better of him in the past. He too has grown, just as this team has.
Ogden: Spalletti. OK, Napoli didn’t make it to the semifinals after being knocked out by AC Milan, but it’s safe to say that injuries and suspensions conspired against the Serie A leaders at the worst possible time. But despite being without Victor Osimhen, Kim Min-Jae, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Giovanni Simeone for either one or both legs of the Milan tie and losing Mario Rui and Matteo Politano to first-half injuries in the second leg, Napoli almost took the game to extra time in Naples. Until they faced Milan, Napoli were the most exciting team in this season’s Champions League and that was down to Spalletti moulding a team that blew Liverpool, Ajax and Rangers away in the group stage. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Stanislav Lobotka and Osimhen have lit up the Champions League this season, but Spalletti couldn’t overcome the loss of so many key players to take Napoli into the last four and beyond. But without the resources of the majority of teams in the competition, Napoli and Spalletti certainly left their mark.
Olley: Stefano Pioli. It is obviously easier to swing in behind this argument after AC Milan beat Napoli because Spalletti would otherwise have been clear first choice, but Pioli has done a remarkable job. The talk about Milan’s pedigree in this competition is understandable but they won their first Serie A title in 11 years last season with a youthful lineup. In fact, at an average age of 26 years and 97 days, they’re the youngest team to win the Scudetto since Serie A adopted three points for a win in 1994. And so there was no guarantee that a team playing in the Champions League for only the second time in five seasons would kick on and after an inauspicious group phase, they have stepped up a gear in the knockout rounds. They may not have beaten European heavyweights in Tottenham Hotspur and Napoli, but they adapted to each challenge well and that is credit to the man in the dugout.
Laurens: Simone Inzaghi. He has been under pressure for weeks at Inter with a big possibility that he will be sacked in the summer, yet he put together a master plan to knock out Benfica in the quarterfinals. His Inter side were considered underdogs and lacked confidence and momentum coming into the first leg after some pretty average results in Serie A. But he showed character and outplayed rival coach Roger Schmidt tactically, home and away, to bring the Nerazzurri back to the Champions League semifinals for the first time since 2010, when they won the whole thing as part of their Treble under Jose Mourinho. With his 3-5-2 formation, Inzaghi nullified the attacking threat from in-form Benfica and exposed their weaknesses defensively. Inzaghi deserves so much credit for this European campaign. They beat Barcelona in the group stage to make it to the round of 16. Then they beat FC Porto, the usual bogey team in Europe for Italian clubs, beofre getting the better of Benfica to set up a fantastic Milan derby in the semifinal.
Which player who has helped their team reach the semis do you feel is due more recognition?
Ogden: Thibaut Courtois. The Real Madrid goalkeeper is probably the best in the world right now, but because he plays in such a star-studded team, the Belgium No. 1 rarely gets a mention. But he made crucial saves in the round-of-16 second leg against Liverpool and also produced some key stops to deny Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the quarterfinal. Courtois was a big reason why Real won the final against Liverpool in Paris last season and he will be vital in the semifinal against Manchester City if Carlo Ancelotti’s team are to reach the final again. There is an air of understated calmness about Courtois, but he also has every box ticked in terms of being a world-class goalkeeper and he has shown it time after time in the competition this season.
Olley: Rafael Leao. There is a reason why several top clubs have been monitoring the Portugal international’s contract talks. If he can maintain his match-winning form in the Champions League knockout rounds then that in/soccer/player/_/id/258917/rafael-leaoterest will only continue to grow. There are times when Leao can look a little raw but he is a fearless, pacy winger whose talent was epitomised by Milan’s goal against Napoil on Tuesday, ripping through the opposition from inside his own half before setting up Olivier Giroud for a simple finish. Props to Jack Grealish, too, given the mirth around his £100 million transfer fee has receded into the background.
Laurens: There are a few contenders but I will pick Mike Maignan. The Milan goalkeeper is in the form of his life and he almost stopped everything in the two games against Napoli. He made five saves in the first leg and three in the second, including a penalty. He faced a total xG of 3.58 over the two games and only conceded one goal, in added time of the second leg in Naples. He was just amazing on his line, with his distribution and in his leadership. In the round of 16 against Tottenham, he made a huge and crucial save right at the end of the second leg from a Harry Kane header to prevent the tie going into extra time. It is hard to believe that Milan only paid Lille €15m for him 18 months ago to replace Gianluigi Donnarumma. It is one of the bargains of the last few transfer windows. Nobody thought he would step up and raise his game like he has since arriving at San Siro. He was very good at Lille, but he is now one of the best goalkeepers in the world and Milan can thank him massively for taking the team to the semis.
Marcotti: With honorable mentions for “Magic Mike” Maignan, Nicolo Barella and Eder Militao, I’m going to plump for Jack Grealish. The workrate he has added to this team, coupled with his decision-making and integration into Pep’s schemes is remarkable. Sure, maybe Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri and Erling Haaland are more important to this side, but he’s the added value.
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Which duel between two players are you most looking forward to in the semifinals?
Olley: Luka Modric vs. Kevin De Bruyne. Modric wasn’t at his vintage best against Chelsea but he remains the player who makes Real tick and will attempt to do so in the semifinals, occupying an area of the pitch where De Bruyne will also try to set City’s tempo. Whoever is more effective will go a long way to determining the outcome. De Bruyne is the key supply line to Haaland, who City signed to win this competition, and Real know if they cannot stop Haaland in a one vs. one, cutting out balls into the Norwegian is their best hope of success.
Laurens: Antonio Rudiger vs. Erling Haaland. What a match-up. With Militao’s suspension for the semifinal first leg, Rudiger is almost certain to play and face the Norwegian. It will be physical, intense and provocative. Haaland has not really faced anyone like Rudiger and his nasty edge, his supreme physicality and the hunger that he always displays. Bayern’s Dayot Upamecano is strong but he was not aggressive enough. The same for the other centre-backs Haaland has faced so far in the competition: at RB Leipzig, Willi Orban is too slow and Josko Gvardiol too inexperienced; at Borussia Dortmund, Nico Schlotterbeck too is naive and Mats Hummels too old while the pair who faced him with Sevilla — Pepe Carmona and Tanguy Nianzou — just lacked the quality to handle him. Rudiger has the opposite of all of that. He is streetwise, ruthless, experienced, aggressive, quick and he loves a fight. It will be a massive test so Haaland better be ready.
Marcotti: Easy; Erling Haaland vs. Karim Benzema. The reigning Ballon d’Or versus the future Ballon d’Or … maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for (most of) the rest of our lives. They embody two different ways of playing the centre-forward position, but it’s worth remembering that Benzema didn’t play the way he does now when he was Haaland’s age. Could Haaland grow into that? Is he going to become something else? I have no idea, but I’m psyched to watch and see if Karim the Dream has one last roar in him.
Ogden: Denzel Dumfries vs. Rafael Leao. Leao’s run which preceded his pass for Giroud to score the opening goal against Napoli in Naples showcased the Portugal forward’s ability to tear opponents apart. Leao made easy work of beating three Napoli defenders and he will be earmarked as the danger man for AC Milan when they face city rivals Inter in the semifinals. The job of keeping him quiet is likely to fall to Dumfries, playing as a right wing-back if coach Inzaghi sticks with a back three against the Rossonerri. Dumfries has the pace and strength to nullify Leao’s threat and it will be a key job in Inter’s hopes of reaching the final.
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Give us your predictions for who will reach the final, who will lift the trophy, and why
Laurens: I have a Manchester City vs. AC Milan final, which would be amazing in Istanbul. This is finally City’s year. Maybe they are not Pep Guardiola’s best City team but they are the most complete with talent, hunger and depth. The addition of Haaland to an already stellar squad has taken the team to another level. Milan’s return to the semifinals is a miracle in a draining domestic season. Pioli is doing an amazing job in Europe, much better than in Serie A, while Leao is their X-factor. They surprised the world by beating Napoli and should also win against Inter. For City, it is time for another final. Guardiola and the Citizens after the one lost against Chelsea in 2021. They will first get revenge on Real Madrid in the semis and then be the favourites to win the 2023 final. They came so close before. The Champions League has broken their hearts many times when they were so close and yet so far. But they have learned from their past mistakes and they will not repeat them this season. Manchester City will be crowned champions of Europe for the first time on June 10.
Ogden: Manchester City and AC Milan. The winner of the City-Real tie will be overwhelming favourites to lift the European Cup in Istanbul and it is tough to see either AC Milan or Inter pulling off a shock. City are formidable in every area of the pitch, with the depth that gives them two options in each position. Milan would have all the history and European pedigree in their column and that always counts for something, but it won’t be enough for them to win an eighth Champions League and stop City winning their first.
Olley: Before the quarterfinal/semifinal draw, I went with Real Madrid to win the whole thing so I suppose I should stick with that. However, their experience and game management in the latter stages of this competition is possibly the only discernible advantage they have over Manchester City, who are hitting top form at the right time. Having watched Real home and away against Chelsea, there is an impressive air of authority about them, unfazed by the magnitude of the occasion in a manner City are yet to replicate in the Champions League. The winner of that tie will surely lift the trophy against, probably, AC Milan.
Marcotti: Don’t make me do this …. I’m going to say Real Madrid and Milan, just for the notion of Carlo Ancelotti going back to Istanbul and facing his old club. Ancelotti in Istanbul, where his Milan side lost an all-time classic final to Liverpool in 2005, would be special. And equally, there would be something special about the two sides that have won the most European Cups squaring off for one more. I think City, for all their resilience, showed some vulnerability — not in terms of scoreline, but in terms of the way the game went — over the two legs against a Bayern side that are a mess right now. And I suspect their brutal fixture list could cost them. Who am I kidding? It’s a toss-up. Milan vs. Inter is even more of a toss-up. Two teams that also have to chase a top-four spot domestically, so they can’t just concentrate on this competition. Maybe Milan will shade it because of Maignan and the fact that Leao could have one of those unplayable days. Or maybe this is the moment Romelu Lukaku regains his scoring touch. Who knows? Who cares? Sit back and enjoy.
Champions League betting odds (via Caesar’s Sportsbook)
To reach the final
Manchester City: -250
Inter Milan: -137
AC Milan: +100
Real Madrid: +175
To win the final
Manchester City: -143
Real Madrid: +330
Inter Milan: +600
AC Milan: +700
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