Milan vs. Inter is latest in UCL’s rich history of ‘derbies’

Eternal rivals AC Milan and Inter Milan will contest an all-Italian Champions League semifinal when they go head-to-head at San Siro this week, 20 years after they last met in the final four of Europe’s most prestigious club competition.

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This season’s two-legged tie is the first all-Italian Champions League semifinal encounter since that meeting in 2003, in which Milan advanced courtesy of a precious away goal after both legs ended level (0-0, 1-1).

The Rossoneri then faced further Italian opposition, beating Juventus on penalties in one of the competition’s more forgettable Champions League finals, which went goalless for 120 minutes before the shootout.

The last time the two clubs squared off in the Champions League came in the 2004-05 quarterfinals. Once again, Milan won a stormy clash in which the second leg was abandoned after 72 mins due to crowd trouble and Milan goalkeeper Dida being hit by a flare thrown from the stands, with UEFA awarding Carlo Ancelotti’s side a default 3-0 win to boost their aggregate victory to 5-0.

The image of Inter’s Marco Materazzi and Milan’s Rui Costa standing together and observing the chaos in front of them remains one of the most iconic in the competition’s history.

Domestically, a derby game is usually defined as one between two teams from the same city or neighbouring towns. However, even if, in a European context, we expand that out to mean games between teams from the same country, they are still something of a rare commodity in the European Cup. In the 68 years since the inaugural competition of 1955-56 there have been a total of 43 ties between clubs from the same nation.

The first such derby came in the third year of the European Cup’s existence as Real Madrid and Sevilla of Spain contested a 12-goal thriller across two legs in the quarterfinals of the 1957-58 competition. Real won the first 8-0 before being held 2-2 in the second. After eliminating Vasas of Hungary in the semis, Madrid then went on to beat AC Milan 3-2 after extra time in the final.

Los Blancos lifted the inaugural European Cup and then proceeded to claim the first five titles between 1956 and 1960, which remains a record for most consecutive competition wins. They have also played 11 derbies against other Spanish clubs across both the European Cup and Champions League era, more than any other team.

Thanks in part to an odd five-season phase that saw them face each other six times in European ties between 2004-05 and 2008-09, English pair Chelsea and Liverpool are next with 10 derbies apiece.

England has produced the most derby ties in European Cup history overall with 16 to date, closely followed by Spain with 14. German clubs (including those from pre-unification East and West Germany) have produced seven derbies, while the count for Italian clubs increases to six with this season’s semis. Meanwhile, French clubs have played just one derby in European football’s elite competition: the 2009-10 Champions League quarterfinal between Lyon and Bordeaux.

Since 1955-56, a total of eight European Cup/Champions League finals have been contested between two clubs from the same country, the first occurrence being the 1999-00 Champions League final between Real Madrid and Valencia, which resulted in a 3-0 victory for Los Blancos. All coming since the turn of the century, there have been three all-Spanish Champions League finals, three all-English, one all-German and one all-Italian.

Real Madrid have not only featured in all three of the Spanish ‘derby’ finals, but also emerged victorious in all three as well: beating Valencia in 1999-2000, then Atletico Madrid both in 2013-14 and 2015-16. Indeed, Real and Atletico are the only clubs from the same city to have faced each other in the final.

With just 10 derbies played between 1955-56 and 1992-93 (when the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League), games between clubs from the same country have become far more prevalent since the turn of the century. Indeed, since the 1999-00 campaign a total of 31 derbies have taken place in just 24 years, with only four seasons (2000-01, 2011-12, 2019-20, 2021-22) passing without at least one to speak of. By contrast, the European Cup ran for 11 consecutive seasons between 1961-62 and 1972-73 without producing a single derby tie, with only six further derbies taking place until the Champions League era began in 1992-93.

The dramatic rise in prevalence is due to a change in the format of the competition, and also a byproduct of UEFA bequeathing more automatic qualifying slots and money to clubs from Europe’s top leagues. UEFA first allowed multiple national representatives (two clubs per country) to take part in the Champions League in 1998, though this was raised to allow a maximum of four clubs from one country from 1999-2000 onward.

Domestic rivals are generally kept apart in the group stage and round of 16 — although Chelsea and Liverpool were both pitted in the same group in 2005-06 after Liverpool were afforded special dispensation as defending champions despite failing to qualify via their domestic league position. Because of this, the odds of those teams eventually meeting in the knockout phase is obviously increased.

Memorable Champions League derbies

Borussia Dortmund 1-0 Bayern Munich, 1997-98 quarterfinal (0-0, 1-0)

Notable for being the first derby tie between two clubs from the same country of the Champions League era, the first leg didn’t produce a goal as Bayern and reigning European champions Dortmund hammered out a 0-0 draw at the Olympiastadion in Munich.

The second leg also went the distance as the German foes played out another nervy 109 minutes before Stephane Chapuisat let fly with a strike that proved enough to settle the gruelling two-legged Klassiker in Dortmund’s favour.

Valencia 5-3 Barcelona, 1999-2000 semifinal (4-1, 1-2)

The first Champions League derby of the new millennium saw Valencia cause a major upset over two legs to knock Barcelona out at the semifinal stage. An inspired 4-1 victory at the Mestalla (including an excellent 92nd-minute goal from Claudio Lopez) helped send Hector Cuper’s side to the final at the Stade de France. They came unstuck against fellow Spaniards Real Madrid there, and suffered more heartbreak a year later when they lost another final, this time to Bayern Munich at San Siro.

Manchester United 1-1 (6-5 pens) Chelsea, 2007-08 final

Premier League heavyweights Manchester United and Chelsea came face-to-face on a rainy night in Moscow, a fitting venue for Chelsea as they reached their first-ever Champions League final under the ownership of Roman Abramovich. The majority of the all-English tie was a tight affair, until Didier Drogba was sent off in the last few minutes of extra time for slapping Nemanja Vidic, but the conclusion will live on forever as a fateful slip on the sodden turf saw Chelsea captain John Terry flunk a vital spot kick in the shootout, leaving him distraught and weeping in the rain.

Liverpool 5-7 Chelsea, 2008-09 quarterfinal (1-3, 4-4)

Liverpool and Chelsea saw an awful lot of each other on several fronts in the mid-2000s — 24 times in just five seasons between 2004-05 and 2008-09, in fact. While many of those meetings across five different competitions resulted in stodgy, low-scoring affairs, the Premier League rivals also laid on a few goalfests for good measure. The 2008-09 quarterfinal was one of the best, with the second leg in particular seeing the advantage change hands on numerous occasions.

With three away goals under their belt, Chelsea were installed as heavy favourites for the second leg at Stamford Bridge. However, Liverpool scored twice in the first 30 minutes to go in 2-0 up at half-time. The real fun began almost immediately after the restart as a calamitous fumble from Pepe Reina saw Drogba squeeze home a tame tap-in from the byline. Alex then scored a thunderous free kick to equalise on the night before Frank Lampard put Chelsea 3-2 up in the second leg and 6-3 ahead on aggregate.

With roughly 10 minutes left to play, Liverpool staged an adrenaline-fuelled revival by scoring twice in quick succession though Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt in the 81st and 83rd minutes respectively to leave the Reds needing just one further goal to go through at their hosts’ expense. Alas, it was Chelsea who had the last laugh as Lampard scored his second of the game with a superb first-time finish that went in off the post to extinguish Liverpool’s resurgence once and for all.

Real Madrid 4-1 (aet) Atletico Madrid, 2013-14 final

Guarding a one-goal lead from the 36th minute onward in Lisbon, coach Diego Simeone’s characteristically dogged Atletico side looked to have one proverbial hand on the trophy in second-half injury time. However, deep into the 93rd minute, Real forced a corner which resulted in a last-gasp header from Sergio Ramos sending the final into extra time. With Atletico well and truly deflated, Los Blancos ran roughshod in the ensuing 30 minutes and eventually won 4-1 to emphatically end their 12-year wait for La Decima — the club’s 10th European title.

Tottenham Hotspur (a) 4-4 Manchester City, 2018-19 quarterfinal (1-0, 3-4)

While a 1-0 win in the home leg had effectively put Tottenham in the driving seat, things did not exactly go to plan at the Etihad. A frenzied start saw four goals scored inside the first 11 minutes with a fifth from Raheem Sterling after 21 minutes putting City 3-2 up on the night.

Sergio Aguero then added another in the second half as City looked to be pulling away, only for Spurs’ back-up striker Fernando Llorente to bundle the ball across the line with his pelvis (according to the agonisingly long VAR review) to put his side ahead on away goals.

With the drama unrelenting, there was more mayhem to come in stoppage time as Sterling steered home to complete his hat trick and send City through with the final kick of the game — only for VAR to intervene and strike the goal from the record over the most marginal of offsides spotted in the buildup.

Spurs’ luck continued in the semifinal when Lucas Moura completed his hat trick late in the semifinal second leg against Ajax to send them through to the final. But fortune deserted them in Madrid as Liverpool were awarded a penalty in the first minute, which Mohamed Salah converted as the Reds went on to win the Champions League final ‘derby’ 2-0.