Is this finally the year for Manchester City?
This is the question that’s been asked every year since Pep Guardiola arrived at the blue side of the city in 2016. He has achieved plenty of domestic glory, having powered City to four Premier League titles, four League Cups, and one FA Cup. The Cityzens also currently control their destiny for a third consecutive Premier League crown, a hat trick last accomplished by Manchester United from 2007-09.
Yet “Ol’ Big Ears,” the Champions League trophy, has remained elusive since Sheikh Mansour bought the club in 2008. Guardiola has won it previously, of course, doing so twice with Barcelona. He guided Manchester City to the 2021 final, only to be flummoxed by Thomas Tuchel and Premier League rival Chelsea.
Each Champions League exit has been stinging for a multitude of reasons, not the least being Guardiola acting as his own worst enemy with regards to overthinking his starting XIs and on-pitch tactics. It happened against Liverpool in 2018, again during the 2021 final versus Chelsea, and in breathtaking fashion last year against Tuesday’s semifinal opponent, Real Madrid. City capitulated at the death in the Bernabeu, yielding three goals in the 90th minute and beyond to squander a 5-3 aggregate lead as Los Blancos won the match and would eventually claim their 14th Champions League title.
City returns to Madrid as the overwhelming favorite to win both this two-legged tilt and to finally end its Champions League title drought, but nothing is a given. On the other side of the bracket, a Milan derby will begin Wednesday with AC Milan the “home” team at the San Siro in its first-leg matchup against co-tenant Inter Milan. Both Italian sides have plenty of European credentials to their storied history, with Milan claiming seven titles and Inter lifting the trophy thrice.
The teams will play their second legs next week, with the aggregate winners meeting in the Champions League final on June 10 in Istanbul.
Real Madrid vs. Manchester City
ERLING HAALAND BREAKS THE PREMIER LEAGUE SINGLE SEASON GOAL-SCORING RECORD!
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) May 3, 2023
Guardiola has never lacked for talent since his arrival at Manchester City, but if there is one reason to believe this year will be different, it is Erling Haaland. The Norwegian has been irrepressible, having already set a single-season Premier Record for goals with 35 — and he’s bagged another 12 in the Champions League.
Haaland scored in both legs of City’s quarterfinal victory over Bayern Munich last month, part of purple patch in which he’s totaled nine goals in eight matches across all competitions. Not only does the 22-year-old Haaland regularly score goals, he scores important ones. Thirteen of his 51 goals in City’s competitions have been match-winners, and most oddsmakers are already bracing for such an outcome and expecting him to score in this contest.
A few, though, are willing to be contrarian. BetRivers is offering +112 for Haaland to score, with Barstool Sportsbook (+108) and FanDuel (+100) the only others offering even money or better. DraftKings has a straight listing of -125 but has provided a boost to +115 among its promotions. For those thinking Haaland can bag a brace, BetRivers is also the best play for a two-goal effort at +525, followed by Barstool (+480) and FanDuel (+460).
City has 17 wins and three draws since a 1-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur on Feb. 5, racking up 60 goals in those 20 contests while conceding 12. The team is a solid favorite to win the first leg at the Bernabeu, with BetRivers offering the best play at +123 and a host of books following at +115.
Haaland has accounted for nearly half of City’s 26 Champions League goals, but there are options beyond him. Riyad Mahrez is second with three goals and is a +340 anytime scoring option at BetRivers and +325 at Barstool. The Algerian has 20 career Champions League goals and scored in last year’s matchup in Madrid. For those seeking a more exotic play, both DraftKings and BetRivers are offering +175 on Kevin De Bruyne to add to his 24 assists across all competitions.
Madrid is third in La Liga and looking to roll through a third straight Premier League opponent in the knockout round. Los Blancos disposed of Liverpool in the Round of 16, highlighted by a 5-2 thrashing of the Reds in Anfield, and were professional in a 4-0 aggregate romp past Chelsea last month in the quarterfinals.
Real Madrid’s domestic form entering this match, though, has left something to be desired, with losses at Girona and Real Sociedad among its last five contests. Still, Carlo Ancelotti is a big-time match manager, with four Champions League titles to his credit after lifting “Ol’ Big Ears” last year. For those thinking Ancelotti has the nous to pull off a surprise, Barstool is the best play at +245, followed by WynnBET and FanDuel at +230.
Ancelotti has his own prime-time striker in Karim Benzema, who has 17 goals in 21 league starts and another four in Champions League play. Rodrygo, though, was the man of the moment in last weekend’s Copa del Rey final, building off his two-goal effort versus Chelsea with another brace versus Osasuna. Benzema can be grabbed at +155 at FanDuel as an anytime scorer, while Caesars Sportsbook is a clear outlier on Rodrygo to score in this match at +450. Vinicus Junior, who has a team-leading six goals in Champions League action, is a +350 option at BetMGM.
Both teams will be without key defenders in the first leg, as City’s Nathan Ake is sidelined with a hamstring and Real’s Eder Militao will sit due to yellow card accumulation. Those absences have weighed on oddsmakers’ minds, as the best value for over 2.5 goals is -135 at Caesars.
AC Milan vs. Inter Milan
Lautaro Martínez calls game then lets the crowd know his name 👕
— B/R Football (@brfootball) January 18, 2023
It would be wrong to classify Wednesday’s Derby della Madonnina as an afterthought given the teams’ history in this tournament, even if that success has not come recently. Inter last lifted the trophy in 2010, while Milan’s most recent title came in 2007. The teams have already split their two regular-season derbies, and Inter was a 3-0 victor in the Italian SuperCup in January.
Both sides are in the top five of Serie A, though clearly second-class behind Scuduetto winner and Champions League quarterfinalist Napoli. Inter eliminated the Portuguese contingent in the knockout rounds, ousting Porto in the round of 16 without conceding and Benfica in the quarterfinals on a 5-3 aggregate.
The Nerazzurri have been in blistering form since bouncing Benfica, winning five matches by a combined score of 16-1 and claiming the Coppa Italia by defeating Juventus. That has led oddsmakers to make Inter a strong favorite to win the first leg, with WynnBET and DraftKings offering the best price at +150, followed by BetRivers at +148.
Inter striker Lautaro Martinez, who has a team-leading 23 goals, is the consensus favorite to score during this match, with Caesars, PointsBet, and Barstool all offering +210. Coach Simone Inzaghi has a dilemma of sorts in picking Martinez’s strike partner, however. He could continue with Romelu Lukaku and the “Lu-La” partnership or turn to Edin Dzeko, who is second on the club with 13 goals.
Lukaku is a +250 option at Caesars and +240 at PointsBet, while Dzeko — who has three Champions League goals in seven matches — is a +270 pick at Caesars, +265 at Barstool, and +260 at BetRivers.
Milan has been cagey in knockout round play, winning its home matches 1-0 over Tottenham Hotspur and Napoli and then grinding out a pair of draws on the road. Expect more of the same from Stefano Pioli’s club, which has four wins and five draws in its last nine contests while yielding just five goals. Even with that positive track record, AC Milan can still be had at +220 at BetRivers to win the first leg, slightly ahead of the majority of books offering +210.
Pioli will also have to make one change up front, as striker Rafael Leao is out with an injury. That means Milan’s top goal-scoring sources are warhorses Olivier Giroud and Ante Rebic, though Alexis Saelemakers could be in play as a wagering option. Giroud’s top values are +300 at Caesars and +280 at FanDuel, while Barstool and BetRivers are both playing Rebic at +480. A deep sleeper, Saelemakers is a +950 option at Barstool and BetRivers, and +850 at PointsBet.
Milan’s lack of firepower even before Leao’s injury — it has 70 goals in 45 matches — has led to a heavy expectation for a low-scoring affair. The best value for under 2.5 goals is -160 at Hard Rock and WynnBET.
Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images