The Champions League knockout draw is an object of idle speculation, rumors you recite to liven up a Monday morning. It’s not that many people truly believe that the process is fixed, but that they wouldn’t put it past the corrupt sportocrats who run UEFA. The NCAA, which you could fairly call America’s answer to the various slime-slicked governmental bodies that rule world soccer, pretty clearly engineer their year-end tournament to produce certain matchups while insisting that’s not the case. The Champions League draw isn’t so obviously fishy. It’s more like the NBA draft lottery. Could it be fixed? Yeah, sure. Is it actually? Probably not. It’s just a sour sort of fun to complain about a black Swiss hand bringing your favorite club low when they’re set up to play Manchester City in the first knockout round and their local rival gets Club Brugge.
It’s funny that the problem with Monday’s initial selection—basically, the selection system transposed Manchester United and Liverpool, throwing them into the pool of possible opponents for Spanish clubs they had already met in the group stage, and they had to do the whole thing over again—is being described as a “technical problem with the software” that runs the draw considering that you could organize the entire process using no more than a couple pages of legal pad. (There were certainly folks at home going wait, United can’t play Villarreal… as the event was unfolding.) But whatever, you apparently can’t expect an outfit drowning in beer and natural gas cash to pick some balls out of a chip bowl correctly. The suits eventually figured out the issue and now we’ve got a fully correct set of fixtures.
Real Madrid and Inter will be the most aggrieved clubs. They were set to face Benfica and Ajax and now have PSG and Liverpool, respectively. Madrid are currently cruising atop La Liga, having just thumped Atlético Madrid 2-0 this past weekend. They might think they can win the Champions League, so while they would obviously prefer a weaker opening opponent, they’re not afraid of anyone either.
Inter are the more interesting character. They’re currently favorites to repeat as Serie A champs—Milan are cooling off after a hot start; Juventus are smoking in a ditch at the moment—but likely don’t have the quality to beat Liverpool over two legs. Their ownership group is broke and needs to sell the club sooner rather than later, but their management team is solid and their recruiting over the past few summers has been largely astute. They’re not quite ascending to the levels of those late-aughts José Mourinho-coached squads, one of which topped Europe, but quietly, after a longish spell as a continental also-ran that struggled to qualify for the Champions League let alone compete for it, they’ve closed the gap between themselves and the very best in the world by quite a bit. Their back line is strong. Hakan Calhanoglu is creating and scoring goals. Nico Barella’s probably the best player in all of Italy. Things are looking up. (Samir Handanović is bordering on decrepit, but André Onana is reportedly coming on a free this summer.) That said: Liverpool 5-2 on aggregate, would be my bet.
Inter wouldn’t be unhappy with that. Slightly disappointed to not make the quarterfinals, of course, but they are in the middle, not toward the end, of building something. Making it out of the group stage was already a small victory. If they don’t have any more European soccer past mid-March, they’ll focus on their domestic work and aim higher next season.
In this way, Monday’s redraw seems like a big deal but ultimately isn’t. There are a small handful of clubs who head into a season certain they have a shot at the Champions League, one or two who might round into form as the calendar ticks from one year into the next, and then everybody else: your Belgian and Hungarian champs, the upper-middle class from the bigger leagues, titans that aren’t living up to their names for one reason or another. The last four of this year’s tournament will be something like City, Chelsea, Madrid, and Bayern. Or three of those four plus a team like Benfica, who will get annihilated in the semi. There’s just too much soccer against too many really good opponents to make a true cinderella run.
Realist Interistas know this. It’s one thing to fight for the top spot in a good-not-great Serie A and another to hang with Bayern and Chelsea. It’s not impossible to do the latter—look at Dortmund in 2013, Atleti in 2014 and 2016—but it’s a platform you clamber upon after several years of ascension. Madrid can build a Champions League contender in the space of a summer. They sign the best striker on the market, a terrific center back, and a rotational left back who would start for lots of others teams, and off they go. With Inters and Dortmunds and Atletis, getting themselves up to that level is more arduous—in part because it’s not really where they belong; they are punching slightly above their weight.
Inter are on the verge. It’s always a tenuous position—you know how Madrid and Chelsea and City sometimes buy a bunch of terrific players? some of those could be Inter players this summer—but just getting into the starting blocks is an achievement. They’ll give Liverpool everything they’ve got. And then hope they have even more to give in the spring of 2023.