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A Look Ahead To Two Important Games Against Inter Milan

A check in on Inter, who, like Real Madrid, have been disappointing until now. What holes can Zidane exploit? What will he have to worry about? Kiyan Sobhani’s column.

Inter Milan v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Group C Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

It has been 10 years since Inter Milan lifted the Champions League trophy, on a night that is intertwined with tomorrow’s group stage opponents, Real Madrid. In 2010, Inter beat Bayern Munich at the Santiago Bernabeu 2 - 0 in the European Cup final. Just one round prior, they won Madridistas over by slaying Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona over two legs. Inter did it with Samuel Eto’o in their side, at the peak of his revenge tour. That night in Madrid, Inter partied. Jose Mourinho stayed in the city, later inking a deal with Real.

As Mourinho left the stadium, he famously embraced his defender Marco Materazzi — the two connected through an incredible journey, sealed by weeping tears and a final goodbye hug. Mourinho later went on to say he couldn’t go back to Milan for reasons that would’ve changed his future.

“I had not signed a contract [with Real Madrid] yet,” Mourinho said of staying in the city that night, “but I had already decided. I had turned them down twice before and I couldn’t do it a third time. But I knew that if I went back to Milan that would have changed my mind.”

That was a special Inter team, led by a special manager. Mourinho then went on to rub his success on Real Madrid, catapulting them to three-straight Champions League semi-final berths — a huge leap from six-straight round-of-16 exits prior. What Madrid gained, Inter lost. After their treble-winning season under Mourinho, they never won a League or European title again. From 2011 - 2019, Inter never finished higher than fourth in Serie A, and even finished as low as ninth.

This Inter side are now in their second year of a new era where there are signs of rejuvenation. Antonio Conte has solidified the team’s tactical spine. The team finished second in Serie A last season, but ultimately fell short in the group stages of the Champions League. They showed moments of brilliance against Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona, but didn’t have the talent to tread water with them over four games in the group of death. (Inter outplayed Dortmund for three halves, but eventually got cooked defensively in a pivotal second half at Westfalenstadion.)

Conte went ham in the media after the Champions League exit last season, putting pressure on the board with every possible verbal ammunition he could muster. “We are talking about players who, apart from Diego Godin, have never won anything,” Conte said after the loss to Dortmund last November. “Who do we turn to? Nicolo Barella who has come from Cagliari? Or (Stefano) Sensi, who came from Sassuolo?”

“Our position in Serie A should not allow us to forget our problems.”

This summer, they made several signings — including one Real Madrid loanee who effectively knocked Inter out of the Champions League last season: Achraf Hakimi. There are little excuses left now. Inter are not as deep as 2016 - 2017 Real Madrid — but they should be beating Borussia Mönchengladbach and Shakhtar Donetsk, which they haven’t. (Sounds familiar?)

Inter are not meeting expectations this season yet. These two games against Real Madrid are just as important to them as they are to Zinedine Zidane’s men — with the only real difference being that Real’s expectations as an institution are far greater than any other team’s. Inter have dropped points against Parma, AC Milan, and Lazio. They would’ve hoped to have more than three wins at this stage of the season.

Conventional wisdom says that any Antonio Conte team will be air-tight defensively. There have been flashes of incredible defensive sequences — particularly how well they suffocate wingers and get back in transition — but they are vulnerable. They have switched off in key moments in every big game this season. There is plenty of room to exploit for Zidane if Inter decide to come out of their defensive shell. And even if they don’t, they have been permeable when hedged into a deeper block.

Still, this is a good two-way team that has had some misfortune. Their defense still holds up most of the time, and they’re underperforming their xG in Europe. Romelu Lukaku has been great for them getting into goal-scoring positions. Lautaro Martinez has not yet woken up. Of the two, they need the latter to step up and take his chances more. They played well against Shakhtar and a draw was harsh on them.

Even so, that’s on them, and Real Madrid have benefitted from Inter failing to pick up three points twice before these two key fixtures. Per Mr. Chip on Twitter, Casemiro’s last-gasp goal against Borussia Mönchengladbach bumped Real Madrid’s chances of getting out of the group stages to 20%. Taking into account this wonky group where only three points separate first and fourth after two games, that percentage may be even more. (The number may also just stay at 20% when considering that Inter at their peak, if they hit their ceiling over these two games, will be really difficult to break down.)

Don’t think that Inter won’t come out with every sense of urgency possible over these next 180 minutes. After last season’s second-half collapse against Dortmund, failing again now at this stage of the season would be disastrous for a team with their aspirations. Again, for both teams, these two games are huge, which should make it a neutral’s delight.

Real Madrid’s defense has not been more polished than Inter’s this season. They have relapsed with their positioning and tracking in transition. Lukaku is a supernova running into space — even as a ball-carrier from deep. Achraf has already put wing-backs into blenders this season. Sometimes Lukaku makes runs to the far post to tower over a team’s left-back meeting a cross coming in from the opposite wing. Him and Achraf together on that flank would make it a no-brainer to start Ferland Mendy over Marcelo. (Ask Theo Hernandez what the experience of guarding Achraf and Lukaku was like.)

*Note, Lukaku will miss the first game in Madrid

One early observation I had of Inter while watching the Milan derby earlier this season: An elite off-ball moving goalscorer can do so much damage against them. That may or may not lie on someone like Benzema given his defensive function and link-up role within the team. I’m taking about a striker whose entire job description is to sneak behind Inter’s line undetected. Inter struggled so much dealing with Zlatan Ibrahimovic — and Zlatan wasn’t even doing anything ground-breaking to get into space:

Inter likely won’t keep as high a line against Real Madrid, but Real Madrid can still exploit the vast space that exists between their defenders on quick attacks:

Zlatan is Zlatan. At age 39, he’s still playing at a level where he can beat you with his individual pizazz. But Inter didn’t make him work. It’s like giving Giannis a lay-up line and hoping to contain him. Zidane likely won’t start Luka Jovic in these two games, but it’s worth pointing out that he could give the defenders something extra to think about. If not Jovic, then someone has to keep Inter’s defenders on their toes constantly.

(Inter have their own version of this. Lukaku is so good sneaking behind defenders, meeting crosses, and pick-pocketing defenders. His movement and dribbling is so hard to deal with.)

What Inter have defensively is width — something Real Madrid struggle breaking down. If Zidane plays a scheme centred around crossing, he’ll have trouble getting that space when Inter start hunting the wingers and wingbacks with multiple defenders. They rotate quickly, plug the half-space, and are equipped to navigate across the field when there’s a switch. There will be onus on Real Madrid’s wingers, namely Eden Hazard, to be brilliant in tight spaces.

As good as Inter are recovering from quick ball movement, you can escape them if you zip out of the flank quickly:

The offense does not stop after one switch. It’s quick, proactive, constant:

Real Madrid will need to swing it much quicker than they have in previous games against Cadiz, Shakhtar, and in the first half against Huesca where they auto-piloted on slow, U-shaped possession.

Almost as pertaining as Real Madrid’s offense is their positioning if they give the ball away, which is bound to happen once or twice against a defensive team like this. Zidane has not implemented a consistent counter-press, and the way Varane has been asked to fend-off opposition breaks on his own is very much old Real Madrid. Inter will rip you if your anchor is missing and there is no coverage.

When the draw for this group was made, many, including myself, expected to have two fun games against a quality opponent without overthinking what it means for the season as a whole. It turns out these two games are much more than that. Group survival is on the line tomorrow.

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