The good news for Real Madrid is that it won. The bad news is that Tuesday's 3-2, much-needed Champions League victory over Inter Milan was another scratchy, scrappy performance that did little to suggest this is a team with any serious hope of challenging for this season’s European title. For now, though, what is important is the three points. The possibility of failing to make it through to the knockout phase for the first time since 1997 is fading. But this is nothing like the standard to which the club aspires.
For Inter, meanwhile, the defeat followed a familiar pattern. Yet again it will think of what might have been. It should have won its first two games in the group. When it pulled level Tuesday having been 2-0 down, it seemed the more likely winner of the two sides. But at the halfway point of the group stage, Antonio Conte’s side sits at the bottom of its quartet with just two points. It is only three points behind Borussia Monchengladbach, which won 6-0 away to Shakhtar Donetsk, and only two behind Madrid, but, still, it could ill afford the defeat, and it will be feeling the extreme urgency to win when the two sides meet again at San Siro in three weeks.
Tuesday's game, in the end, was decided, and not for the first time, by Zinedine Zidane’s substitutions. When all else goes awry, his instincts remain sharp, and he has a squad replete with options. This time it was Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo who combined to create a winner, the former surging down the left with 10 minutes remaining and squaring for the latter. Rodrygo’s first touch was perfect and his second wasn’t far off as he rattled the ball into the top corner.
Yet in the five minutes before that, Lautaro Martinez and Ivan Perisic had both put good chances just wide. Although it ended thrillingly, the most striking aspect of the early stages of the match was just how poor it was. The lack of quality has been a feature of the Champions League so far this season, perhaps because the compressed nature of the calendar leads to fatigue and prevents proper preparation, and perhaps because the absence of crowds means focus is diminished. It can’t help either that Madrid plays its home games at its secondary Alfredo Di Stefano stadium while the Bernabeu is being redeveloped.
Both sides misplaced pass after pass in an extraordinarily sloppy affair. The opening goal after 25 minutes, Karim Benzema’s 67th career goal in the Champions League, was of a piece with what had gone before, stemming from a dreadful backpass from the Inter right wingback Achraf Hakimi, a former Real Madrid player, although he felt he was fouled.
The goal seemed to shock both sides into form. Sergio Ramos added Madrid's second with a typical header from a corner after 33 minutes, his 100th goal for the club. That seemed to fit a host of preexisting narratives: Madrid recovering from a slow start in the group; a Conte side underperforming in the Champions League, left to regret early opportunities squandered.
But within two minutes Inter had pulled one back with a goal of startling quality, entirely out of keeping with the game to that point, Lautaro Martinez ending a five-game drought with a smart first-time finish from Nicolo Barella’s clever back-heeled flick.
The dynamic of the beginning of the second half was very different, played largely in the Madrid half. If that was a plan, it was a risky one given how Madrid struggled to control possession, but the suspicion was it was just another spell in which Madrid lost all energy and will.
Zidane’s double substitution after 64 minutes confirmed the impression made by his touchline demeanor: he was worried. And he was right to be so. Madrid’s marking went awry again four minutes later, and an unmarked Martinez was able to head across goal for Ivan Perisic to squeeze a finish behind Lucas Vasquez and in at Thibaut Courtois’s left-hand post. That the Croatian then rushed to retrieve the ball from the net said everything about how vulnerable Madrid seemed.
But in the end those substitutions proved inspired. So long as it does get through the group, Madrid perhaps will not be too concerned. It has done this before: as a club, it has a history of finding form at the critical point of the season. But getting through cannot be taken for granted. This is proving to be a testing group, and Madrid, despite the win, is not playing well.