For Carlo Ancelotti – a former Milan player and manager whose association with the club spanned more than three decades – a Champions League victory against arch-rivals Inter, at San Siro, at the death, is just about perfect for his first European tie back at Real Madrid, right?
Well, half wrong at least. Rodrygo’s 89th-minute winner not only secured Real Madrid three crucial points against easily their strongest opposition in Group D, but masked a distressingly porous first half that could easily have seen Inter go into the break with a healthy lead.
Inter bombarded Real Madrid’s goal with no fewer than 14 shots in the first 45 minutes of a game they somehow lost 1-0. Madrid afforded Chelsea the same number of efforts in the entirety of their unsuccessful Champions League semi-final last season but, unlike the clinical Blues that night, went unscathed on Wednesday.
Lining up in a lopsided 4-3-3, Madrid‘s in-form Vinicius Junior was allowed to hold a high starting position on the left-hand side, with the threat of a jet-heeled counterattack led by the Brazilian likely behind this move. Madrid eagerly pressed the hosts to try and spring such a breakaway but in the end this daring stance hindered more than helped Ancelotti’s side.
With Vinicius lurking upfield, Luka Modric – in his second game of the season after an injury to begin the campaign – was repeatedly exposed as the widest of Madrid’s midfielders on the left. Constantly caught between two stalls, the 36-year-old offered little in the way of stemming the torrent of deliveries as Madrid’s clean sheet was only preserved by a superb individual display from Thibaut Courtois between the sticks.
On the flank Inter overload at the best of times, Milan Skriniar – seemingly uninterested in Vinicius behind him – strode forward in the opening ten minutes to slice through Real’s white banks of four. The roaming centre-back’s incisive ball picked out Lautaro Martinez, who cushioned a brilliant first-time pass for Edin Dzeko only to be rebuffed, not for the first time, by Courtois.
Inter’s new number nine was left with a particularly bitter taste after the match, sourly telling Amazon Prime Italia (via Football Italia): “An absolutely undeserved defeat. We deserved much, much more.”
Dzeko will be ruing Inter’s loss more than most considering the quality of chances that fell his way. On the cusp of half-time, Nicolo Barella barrelled into that familiar swathe of space down the right, swinging a deep cross to the back post where Ivan Perisic volleyed a square pass that Dzeko strode onto, eight yards out, and stabbed close enough to Courtois for the Belgian to beat away.
After the break the big Bosnian forced yet another stop from his duelling partner between the sticks, thundering a corner into the ground but, as ever, not past Courtois.
Rather than an anomaly, the early stages of Ancelotti’s return to the Spanish capital have been plagued be similarly underwhelming defensive performances. Four games in, Madrid have the fourth-worst expected goals (xG) against record in La Liga according to StatsBomb. While the small sample size should be taken into consideration, so should the strength, or lack thereof, of the opposition; Madrid’s quartet of opponent’s so far all finished outside last season’s top five.
Zinedine Zidane’s second spell as Madrid’s manager was defined more by grit than glitz. Building upon a resolute back line that could boast the second best defensive record (both in actual and expected goals) across Europe’s top five leagues between 2019 and 2021, Zidane won La Liga and reached last season’s Champions League semi-finals.
Ancelotti has inherited a squad stripped of that side’s first-choice central defensive pairing; Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.
Rather than their rearguard, Wednesday’s tie swung on the substitutions the two Italian tacticians on the sidelines made. In a replica of their 2-2 draw against Sampdoria on the weekend, Simone Inzaghi couldn’t wait ten minutes into the second half before making a double change, replacing Inter’s threatening wing-backs against Madrid.
By 65 minutes, Inzaghi – having turned to his bench again – had swapped out almost half his outfield players, including Lautaro, much to San Siro’s bemusement. In an unsurprisingly stilted performance, this much-changed Inter mustered just two attempts after Inzaghi’s alterations; both were speculative and blocked.
Madrid played their role in this swing of influence – dominating more of the ball and generally shifting their play further up the pitch – before both of Ancelotti’s substitutions, ironically, won the game at the death. Eduardo Camavinga, a beleaguered Modric’s replacement, teed up the oncoming Rodrygo for a volley from close range.
On the face of it, Madrid’s narrow triumph was one Ancelotti could savour for many reasons but, for many more, can – and needs to be – one that Madrid learn from and improve upon.