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Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images
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“It’s a final for us.” That’s how Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane described his side’s third UEFA Champions League group stage match later today at 21:00 CET, as the Spanish champions host Inter Milan at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Madrid have been a real mixed-bag team, producing inconsistent performances, of varying quality and crucially, intensity. But although they’re in relatively solid La Liga form, in the competition they’re best known for, things have started equally as poorly for Zidane as they did last season. A loss on matchday one to Shakhtar Donetsk, and a late draw against Borussia Monchengladbach last week, has left the 13-time European Champions rock bottom of the group. Anything but a victory today, and their fate might already look like finishing their European adventure this season in the UEFA Europa League.

Today’s rivals haven’t exactly been lighting up Serie A. Inter sit in sixth place, five points off the leaders, and city-rivals Milan, in a start to the season which can only be explained as the Italian version of Madrid. Antonio Conte’s men create a lot of chances, but fail to finish them, just like Real. They’re also a side that struggles to pick apart teams in a low-block, an issue similar to Madrid’s. And another similarity is that Conte, like his former Juventus teammate Zidane, hasn’t really found the right balance or tactics to allow his team to flourish in front of goal against all opponents, but they also leak goals. Inter have conceded 10 goals in their six league games, but it’s a team that doesn’t sit back, which should help Real today.

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The key talking point

The very fact that the Serie A side will come at Madrid, means this game is likely to be completely unlike the opening two group stage games, which were cagey. Shakhtar and Gladbach both sat deep, were well organised, and their game-plan was to hit Madrid on the counter. Inter will actively look to pursue control of the contest, which is why Madrid stand a really good chance of picking up three points today, if they cut out individual errors, and play with an intensity similar to the one in the Clasico.

An issue Madrid could face is down the right flank. Lucas Vazquez is back, but it’s not guaranteed that he’ll start, having just recovered from a muscle overload. That leaves Zidane with only one option, to play Ferland Mendy at right-back, and Marcelo as the left-back. This is potentially problematic, as Marcelo has demonstrated over the past 12-18 months that he simply isn’t capable of starting big games anymore, and even more worryingly, is no longer a player who you can trust over 90 minutes. If Marcelo was to play on the left, that would give Inter a massive advantage, because Achraf Hakimi would essentially have the freedom of the right-wing, to bomb forward, behind Marcelo who’s usually advanced, and create chance after chance for the likes of Lautaro Martinez and Ivan Perisic.

Zidane can’t overthink this contest, he has to play to his strengths, and he has to go with a conventional 4-3-3, and ride on the hope that Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio can produce solid chances and bury them too. Behind them, Federico Valverde will again be pivotal in how the team presses high-up, how the likes of Marcelo Brozovic and Christian Eriksen are bothered in possession, and ultimately, how Madrid win the midfield battle. Conte typically has gone for a 3-4-1-2 this season, but Arturo Vidal is likely to start today, therefore, it’ll likely be a 3-1-3-3 when attacking, with the wing-backs overlapping or cutting inside to support the midfielders to build a rhythm, and a conventional Conte 3-5-2 while defending, to keep compact, tight and still allow a midfielder to press, nick the ball, and trigger a counter attack with Perisic and Martinez the furthest two, who won’t be defending much early on.

If Madrid can dictate the tempo, and move Inter around the park, I think the aim will be to overload the Italian side’s right channel, using Hazard, Ferland and Benzema, before quickly switching play via Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos to Real’s right, for Fede, Lucas and Asensio to make runs on both the inside and outside of Aleksandar Kolarov and Alessandro Bastoni. That’s where Madrid can hurt their opposition.

Team news

The hosts are still with right-back concerns, with Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Odriozola out with injuries, third choice and the ultimate utility player Nacho Fernandez is also missing, while Eder Militao, who could have played right-back today, tested positive for Covid-19. Martin Ødegaard is closing in on a return but didn’t make the squad. But Lucas and Mariano Diaz return, to bolster Zidane’s attacking options, with the former likely to be right-back once more.

As for Conte, Romelu Lukaku is the major absentee with a muscular strain. Centre-half powerhouse Milan Skriniar and talented midfielder Stefano Sensi are both doubts, but could feature if they pass late fitness tests. But the good news is that Alexis Sanchez, Vidal, Brozovic and Ashley Young are back, and rested, as is Danilo D’Ambrosio.

The last time they met?

Madrid haven’t got the best record against Inter. They’ve faced off 15 times, with the Italians winning seven of them, and two of them being draws. The last time they faced off was over two decades ago, back when Inter were a major European force. That match was on November 25th 1998, when Ivan Zamorano scored before Clarence Seedorf equalised at the San Siro, but Roberto Baggio scored two late goals to clinch a 3-1 win as Inter topped the group, with Madrid coming in second place.

Fun fact for Madrid heading into this one, Los Merengues could go four home European games without a win, if they fail to beat Inter today. But interestingly, the first time Real went three European home games without a win was during the 1999-2000 edition, the year of Real’s eighth Champions League title.

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