For Carlo Ancelotti – a former Milan player and coach whose association with the club spanned more than three decades – a Champions League win over arch-rivals Inter in San Siro on death is almost perfect for his first European return match at Real Madrid , or?
Well, at least half wrong. Rodrygo’s 89th-minute winner not only secured three crucial points for Real Madrid against their strongest opponents in Group D, but also hid a shockingly porous first half that Inter could easily have let go into the break with a healthy lead.
Inter bombed Real Madrid’s goal with no less than 14 shots in the first 45 minutes of a game that they somehow lost 1-0. Madrid have presented the same number of efforts to Chelsea throughout last season’s unsuccessful Champions League semi-finals, but unlike the clinical blues that night, it was unscathed on Wednesday.
Set up in a crooked 4-3-3, Madrid’s formidable Vinicius Junior was allowed to take a high starting position on the left, with the risk of a counterattack with jet heels, led by the Brazilian, probably behind it. Madrid eagerly pushed the hosts to achieve such an outlier position, but in the end, that daring stance more than hampered Ancelotti’s side.
With Vinicius lurking in the field, Luka Modric – in his second game of the season from an early-season injury – has been repeatedly exposed as Madrid’s widest midfielder on the left. Constantly caught between two stands, the 36-year-old could hardly contain the flood of deliveries, because Madrid’s goal was only saved by a great individual presentation by Thibaut Courtois between the sticks.
On the flank Inter overload at the best of times, Milan Skriniar – seemingly disinterested in Vinicius behind him – stepped forward in the first ten minutes to break Real’s white back four. The roaming center-back’s incisive ball hit Lautaro Martinez, who cushioned a brilliant first pass for Edin Dzeko, only to avoid being parried by Courtois for the first time.
Inter’s new number nine had a particularly bitter aftertaste after the game and said sourly to Amazon Prime Italia (via Football Italia): “An absolutely undeserved defeat. We deserved much, much more.”
Dzeko will regret Inter’s defeat more than most, given the quality of the opportunities presented to him. On the threshold of half-time, Nicolo Barella stormed right into the familiar expanse of space and threw a deep cross at the back post, where Ivan Perisic volleyed a square pass Dzeko eight meters away, and close enough to him, Courtois stabbed for the Belgian beat.
After the break, the big Bosnian forced his duel partner another stop between the sticks, thundering a corner into the ground, but as always not past Courtois.
In addition to being an anomaly, the early stages of Ancelotti’s return to the Spanish capital were plagued by similarly disappointing defensive performances. After four games, Madrid have the fourth worst expected goals (xG) against the La Liga record, according to StatsBomb. While the small sample size should be considered, the strength or lack of resistance should also be considered; Madrid’s quartet of opponents have all ended up outside of the top 5 last season.
Zinedine Zidane’s second tenure as Madrid coach was one of courage rather than glamor. Building on a determined line of defense that had the second-best defensive record (both in actual and expected goals) in the top five leagues in Europe between 2019 and 2021, Zidane won La Liga and reached the semi-finals of last season’s Champions League .
Ancelotti has inherited a squad that has been exempted from first choice in that team’s central defense. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.
The draw on Wednesday wasn’t their rearguard, but the substitutions of the two Italian tacticians on the sidelines. In a replica of the weekend’s 2-2 draw with Sampdoria, Simone Inzaghi couldn’t wait ten minutes in the second half before making a double move and replacing Inter’s threatening full-backs against Madrid.
In the 65th minute, Inzaghi – after he was back on his bench – replaced almost half of his field players, including Lautaro, much to the amazement of San Siro. In an unsurprisingly stilted performance, this heavily altered Inter only managed two attempts after Inzaghi’s changes; both were speculative and blocked.
Madrid played their part in that change of influence – dominating the ball more and shifting their game higher in general – before both Ancelotti substitutions, ironically, won the game after death. Eduardo Camavinga, a battered Modric replacement, mixed up the oncoming Rodrygo for a volley from close range.
At first glance, Madrid’s narrow triumph was one that Ancelotti enjoyed for many reasons, but for many other reasons Madrid can and must learn from it and improve.