Champions League: and then there were eight
Let's see who can and can't win the whole thing.
Hi, sorry this article took longer than it really should have. I was out of it with food poisoning for a day or so, but this still should have really been up sooner, my apologies.
Ok, so it’s the international break now, which is a good time to take stock of everything in football. Let’s start by taking a look at those last eight Champions League sides with a power rankings format everyone likes. No need to waste time with a preamble, because you all want to get stuck into it, so let’s go.
The first draft of this article was kinder towards Chelsea. You know, I wanted to put them higher. The team’s performances have been steadily improving in 2023, even if results didn’t reflect this until recently. The second leg against Borussia Dortmund was the best I’ve seen the Blues play under Graham Potter and I was starting to think there might be something here. Then they put in a stinker against Everton and it’s obvious that even if the club is slowly improving, there’s a lot of work left to do.
They got the bad side of the draw and there’s no way around that. Beat Real Madrid over two legs and they’ll get the prize of facing Manchester City or Bayern. FiveThirtyEight’s Global Club Soccer Rankings model currently estimates the three best teams in the world are… Man City, Bayern and Real Madrid. I don’t think it’s impossible for Chelsea to pull something together. Teams have started a season poorly but found another gear down the stretch to win the Champions League before. But they could’ve really done with better luck than they got here.
7. AC Milan
Milan have not put up the most spirited title defence in Italy this season.
xG difference ranks the Rossoneri as the fifth-best team in Serie A as manager Stefano Pioli finds himself in a top-four race. They came second in their Champions League group behind Chelsea, who were far from at it in the autumn and got pretty fortunate to draw a limp Tottenham side. Milan were solidly the better side over two legs, but they hardly demolished Spurs, and look a little out of place among Europe’s elite here.
They’re on the “good” side of the draw, but it still looks a difficult task. In the all-Italian clash, there’s no doubt most will expect Napoli to enforce their style of game on Milan. Without the ball, both Milan and Napoli like to press pretty aggressively, though in different ways. Milan lead Serie A in terms of the fewest opponent passes before trying to win the ball back, while Napoli aren’t too far behind. Milan, however, have a middling number of “high turnovers” (winning the ball less than 40m from the opposition goal), a stat that Napoli lead the division in. With the ball, Milan are a much more vertical team, leading Serie A in “direct” attacks. Napoli are a patient possession team, broadly speaking. So I would expect this tie to be one in which Milan’s game is about disrupting Napoli’s control and springing attacks on them. No doubt Napoli are the favourites, but it could be very entertaining.
6. Inter Milan
This hasn’t been a bad season for Inter per se, though recent weeks have been very underwhelming. They’re probably the second-best team in Italy, even if that’s a distant second. They don’t press quite as aggressively as Milan or Napoli, but they’re still one of the higher pressing sides in Serie A. They’re not as patient in the buildup as Napoli, nor are they as direct at times as Milan. Maybe they’re the goldilocks Italian side, or maybe they’re just not that interesting in comparison.
In the group stages, I thought they were pretty fortunate to take four points off Barcelona and secure their place in the knockout stages. They weren’t especially impressive in the Round of 16 against Porto. I’ll be honest, this is the last section of the newsletter I wrote, because Inter just don’t excite me. Sorry, Inter fans. I’m moving onto the next team because I’m already bored of this paragraph.
How much do we believe in the FiveThirtyEight ratings?
Right now, the model likes them quite a bit, giving them a 58% chance of beating Inter and making it to the semi-finals. It’s easy to see how the model has reached this conclusion. Benfica are running away with the Primeira Liga, sitting ten points clear with by far the strongest xG difference. Benfica’s xG difference per game of +2.02 is the best in any European league FBRef carries advanced data for, and by a hefty margin. But that’s the easy part for any of these models. The hard part is figuring out league parity when there are so few games between clubs from different countries. But the findings we have are good. In the group stages, Benfica played Paris Saint-Germain level and dispatched Juventus, suggesting they’re capable of going toe-to-toe with Europe’s biggest clubs.
Manager Roger Schmidt made his name with a very extreme interpretation of German fast-paced counter-pressing. But that’s not how Benfica play. They lead the Primeira Liga in the number of passes per sequence and fall behind only Sporting in the length of time those sequences last. Schmidt is a gegenpressing advocate at heart, but he’s recognised that style didn’t suit the players and environment he came into and adapted brilliantly. That’s exciting. Am I convinced Benfica really are one of the best teams in Europe? No. But I’m fascinated to see how this plays out.
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