Inter were given a glimpse of the mentality that is needed to go deep in the Champions League as they were beaten 2-0 at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday night.
Whilst all qualification spots in Group D were already settled before matchday six, the game between the Nerazzurri and Real Madrid was a straight fight to see who could top the group and get the theoretically easier draw in the round of 16.
Considering Simone Inzaghi’s side only took one point from their first two fixtures in the group stage this season, the fact they arrived at matchday six already qualified is an immense achievement. No one can take away from Inzaghi the fact that he is the first Inter boss to take them to the knockout stages in a decade.
Inter’s promising start
Inter made a very promising start to the match as they have tended to do under Simone Inzaghi ever since he took charge of the team. Inter actually subjected RM to more shots in a Champions League first half than they have faced since at least 2003/04, with 13 attempts heading Thibaut Courtois’ way. Only Bayern Munich in 2012 managed the same amount.
13 – Real Madrid have faced 13 shots vs @Inter at the half time, more than any other @ChampionsLeague first half at home for them since at least 2003/04 season (level vs FC Bayern in April 2012). Show#ChampionsLeague #RealMadridInter pic.twitter.com/WKWzNXGxFB
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) December 7, 2021
It seemed to be Inter’s season in a microcosm. Multiple clear attempts on goal, but an inability to capitalise on the situation at hand. Despite the attacking play, Lautaro Martinez was largely anonymous. Despite the lack of a goal, it seemed Inter were destined to find the back of the net soon.
Los Blancos and Toni Kroos show how it’s done
The game turned when Toni Kroos found a worrying amount of space on the edge of Inter’s box and fired a precise finish across Samir Handanovic into the bottom corner.
That goal put Carlo Ancelotti’s side into a position of strength and led to Inter hurling yet more bodies at the opposition defence.
Vinicius Junior elicited a tangible panic within the Inter backline when he raced towards them with remarkable pace and poise. He and others were finding acres of space as Inter committed as many men forward as possible. The game felt more like a knockout tie rather than a group game.
Inter weren’t able to maintain the same intensity when the second half began and by the hour mark, Inzaghi had seen enough. He made the incredibly bold call to remove Marcelo Brozovic, Edin Dzeko, and Hakan Calhanoglu all at once in place of Matias Vecino, Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez.
Whilst the desire to change the flow of the game was admirable, the changes did little to give Inter a better chance of turning things around.
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Hot-headed Barella lets the side down
The changes from Inzaghi proved futile just four minutes later when Nicolo Barella rolled back the years and showed an awful lack of judgment.
He was forced into the advertising hoardings during a challenge with Eder Militao but the 24-year-old then swung a punch at the legs of the Brazilian defender whilst on the ground. It initially seemed the referee would book both players but after showing a yellow to Militao, he opted on a red card for Barella.
That effectively removed any chance that Inter had of getting back into the match as by this stage Los Blancos had started to command the game and had Inter exactly where they wanted them.
The effort levels never dropped for Inter but they showed they were not at Real Madrid’s level when it comes to controlling a big European fixture and keeping a calm head when it matters most. When it comes to mentality, Barella can learn a lot from Kroos who was the personification of calm and poise throughout the game.
Whilst it was a disappointing night for Inzaghi, there are lessons to be learnt and he may well be thankful for the experience in the long run. Regardless of this defeat, the fact Inter have qualified for the Round of 16 is an excellent achievement and a big step in the right direction.