The Champions League's final four is set and it could scarcely be more intriguing. On one side of the bracket, the holders face a team who are surely the best that Europe has to offer. It's the perennial winners against the team who just can't get their first one on the board, the innovative Pep Guardiola against the elegant Carlo Ancelotti, as Real Madrid take on Manchester City.
Across the bracket, the small matter of the Derby della Madonnina, Inter Milan and AC Milan vying for a spot in the Champions League final 20 years after the latter came out on top in a thunderous San Siro. Here is how we're ranking the four sides now that the quarterfinals are concluded:
CBS Sports has a brand new daily soccer podcast, covering everything you need to know about the beautiful game. Make sure to give House of Champions a follow for coverage of the biggest games, stories, transfer news with Fabrizio Romano, and everything else going on in the world's most popular sport.
1. Manchester City (+2)
Ok, hear me out. What about if you took the world's best striker, gave him an elite-tier supply line and then stuck the meanest defense you can muster at the back end of the pitch? That surely would be enough to see you crowned Europe's best side, no matter the confluence of ancient curses, questionable selection decisions and puzzling individual errors. We are about to find out. This feels like City's moment, there can be little disputing that the side that just eviscerated Bayern Munich over two legs is the best left standing in this competition.
All the more so because they did it in the least Pep Guardiola fashion imaginable. In both games they conceded the possession game quite dramatically, backing their defense to hold firm and knowing that Bayern would push forward and leave gaps for Erling Haaland to bulldoze his way into. It worked a treat, not least because City's penalty area was like kryptonite for Bayern. Only two Champions League teams have given up fewer shots in the box than the 48 City have conceded. It is worth reminding you at this juncture that the English champions have played four games more than 16 of those teams and two more than a further eight. The shot map below might not be all that bad for one game, so populated is it with low-value shots. These are every single one that Ederson has faced in the competition this season.
Per match, they are giving up 0.71 non-penalty expected goals (xG). No one else left in the field is below one on that particular metric. After two more reactive games against City, their offensive statistics have dropped back somewhat but those numbers could shoot up in a moment with Kevin De Bruyne providing for Haaland. Just imagine if those two were both to get injured though. In that case, Guardiola could turn to any three from Jack Grealish, Julian Alvarez, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez (you forgot about him, didn't you?) or Bernardo Silva. This is not just depth, this is golden reserves to shame Fort Knox. It is going to take a remarkable team indeed to stop City. Unfortunately for them, that is just who is lying in wait.
2. Real Madrid (--)
Last year's Madrid seemed to know of only one way to win a tie: leaning fully into the chaos. If the first leg of their round of 16 tie against Liverpool is anything to go on, they can still do that. They just don't seem to see the point when they can simply apply their technical and tactical superiority. Chelsea tried all sorts of wheezes and gimmicks to charm a way beyond Thibaut Courtois' goal but they simply had no answer for Madrid's greater footballing intellect.
At the outset, Frank Lampard seemed to have set up his right flank in such a way as to give Wesley Fofana support in dealing with Vinicius Junior, Reece James blocking the pass into the left winger with the Frenchman ready to shuffle across as required. Within two minutes Luka Modric had advanced a few yards ahead of his usual midfield berth. Suddenly Fofana didn't know who to pick up, expecting N'Golo Kante to drop back from his high-pressing spot. With just a few yards of movement, Madrid had befuddled their opponents.
The innate understanding of the game might just be an X factor for Madrid against Pep Guardiola's side, particularly if the Manchester City manager indulges his proclivities for complexities. Whatever the opposition tries, there might be no better read-and-react team than the champions.
3. AC Milan (+4)
There is, it should be noted, a chasm between our two favorites for the tournament and the Milanese representatives left standing on the other side of the bracket. That is not to say AC Milan nor Inter have a chance of winning the whole thing -- anything can happen in 90 high-pressure minutes of a low-scoring sport -- but neither of these teams are pockmarked with elite performers in every position in the starting XI and the bench. What Stefano Pioli's side do have, however, is a few genuine match-winners at the elite level, and that is what makes them favorites to win this tournament.
One might reasonably argue that there is no better goalkeeper against penalties right now than Mike Maignan, who has a 25 percent save rate when faced with shots from 12 yards out over the course of his career. The xG value of a penalty is 0.78, when strikers face Maignan they have a success rate of 69 percent if you factor in those that miss the target. The graphic below details the spot kicks on target that the Frenchman has faced in an AC Milan shirt. It is elite-level performance.
At the other end, Rafael Leao has taken the leap. It is less than two and a half years since he was a starstruck youngster,Now he beats defenders like they're playing on beginner mode. His bamboozling run ripped the heart out of Napoli in the second leg. There is no reason why he can't do it again.
4. Inter Milan (+2)
The other team to occupy the San Siro may not have anyone of the transcendent brilliance of Leao and Maignan (Nicolo Barella isn't far off though) but in the Champions League, Simone Inzaghi's side have proven themselves to be a robust unit who will make it exceptionally difficult for you to score against them. They give up more shots than most per game but the efforts they do bait opponents into taking were generally low-value ones, at least until tonight, when they allowed Benfica to rack up three goals. A generous assessment might be that the tie was done and dusted after Barella's opener and whenever the pressure did build, Inter responded with a goal.
Before those final 10 minutes, Inter proved themselves to be a shrewd, cautious outfit that will not get carried away in pursuit of victory. The issue is that rather makes them a team light on attacking punch, through 10 games they have averaged a shade under 1.5 xG, a slightly worse return than Celtic and Bayer Leverkusen. That is much less of a problem when you have an in-form Andre Onana at the other end and for all that advanced metrics profile more favorably for Milan than Inter, one has to bear in mind that the latter played four games against Bayern Munich and Barcelona just to get to the last 16.
On the pitch, the evidence so far is that the Nerazurri have qualities to truly test Milan. Inter might have lost their first meeting with their crosstown rivals this season but since then they have had the better of the games, winning 4-0 in the Super Cup and 1-0 in Serie A. Across the two league games, they registered more shots and xG and twice as many big chances. Player for player and on the basis of league form, the Rossoneri might be the better side, but make no mistake, the gap between these two is razor thin going into one of the biggest footballing fortnights the city of Milan has seen in 20 years.