Some things are reassuringly familiar and nothing perhaps more so at the moment than Inter’s ability to capitulate as soon as the pressure is on in the Champions League.
Real Madrid went into Wednesday's 2-0 win in Italy in trouble. Borussia Monchengladbach’s victory over Shakhtar earlier in the day had, barring a sudden return to form for Shakhtar–effectively made it a straight shootout between Inter and Madrid for the second spot in the knockout stage from their group. Madrid, having beaten Inter a touch fortuitously at home three weeks ago, led Antonio Conte’s side by two points. At the San Siro, where Madrid had never previously beaten Inter, this was an opportunity for Inter to overtake a side without Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema that has already dropped 10 points from nine games in La Liga.
But after just seven minutes, Nicolo Barella had clipped Nacho’s leg to concede a penalty. Eden Hazard converted for just his third goal for Madrid. In the 10 minutes that followed, Madrid could have scored twice more. Lucas Vazquez pinged a shot off the post and then Ferland Mendy mystifyingly opted to square when he had a glorious shooting chance.
With Martin Odegaard, making just his eighth appearance for Madrid and his first in the Champions League, excelling behind Mariano Diaz, at least before halftime, Madrid, for almost the first time this season, looked like a confident, cohesive side. Inter couldn’t get close to the ball and became almost visibly frustrated. That spilled over when Arturo Vidal went down under challenge from Raphael Varane in the box.
Referee Anthony Taylor decided Varane had played the ball, a view replays confirmed. Vidal, though, was furious and led a mass protest. Taylor booked him, at which he redoubled his assault and was rightly sent off. In doing so, he became just the third player, after Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to be sent off for three clubs in the Champions League. It was a moment of spectacular stupidity that effectively ended Inter’s hopes of getting back into the game and so as good as ended its hopes of reaching the last 16.
For Conte, this is becoming an increasingly familiar pattern. His best performance remains in 2012-13, when he led Juventus to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. He did reach the final of the Europa League with Inter last season, but it feels like no lessons have been learned, that that was no sign of development. In the senior competition, his record remains disappointing. He got to the last 16 with Chelsea in 2017-18, but this threatens to be a fourth failure to make it out of the group.
It would be easy here–and not unreasonable–to blame Vidal. But Inter was in this position because of earlier problems in the group. And it was already behind and being outplayed when Vidal imploded. His red card was a consequence of Madrid’s dominance, not the cause of it. This was an astonishing collective failure of nerve.
Nobody could claim that all Madrid’s problems are suddenly in the rear-view mirror either, but with a young side, this was an encouraging display. Perhaps it would have been harder in a packed stadium, with Inter fans bellowing their team on. Or perhaps not; the habit of failure is long-established.
Rodrygo, who had scored the winner three weeks ago, came off the bench to add a second with his first touch and stifle an Inter comeback that just looked as though it may be beginning to brew. This development is also familiar. Madrid has a habit of starting the Champions League slowly and then building–even if this was a slower start than most.
But there were more positives here than merely the result, although that has taken Madrid second in the group, three points clear of Shakhtar in third. Odegaard is still only 21 and, after being a little overexposed too young before leaving on loan, showed enough to suggest he could have a future at the club. Hazard, after his lengthy injury problems, got in 77 minutes. And Luka Modric, whose contract is up at the end of the season, appears to have found a new lease on life at 35.
Any assessment of Madrid, though, must carry the caveat that it was against a deeply disappointing Inter side. Madrid has only failed to reach the semifinals in two of the last 10 seasons, but there will need to be a significant improvement if it is to go that far this season, Inter, meanwhile, must face up to yet another European failure.