But then Mauro Icardi make his mark on the competition and Spurs suddenly fell apart. A draw would’ve been tough to take, but Tottenham, to the dismay of their fans, went one better.
In stoppage time, a corner was swung into the Spurs penalty area. The visitors didn’t win the first header and there was Matías Vecino, from six yards out, to nod home the winner.
The result already leaves Tottenham playing catch up in Group B. Their clash against Barcelona at Wembley in two weeks has taken on even greater significance by their failure in Milan.
And here are the five things we learned from the clash.
Welcome back, Inter
After a six-and-a-half year absence, I Nerazzurri returned to European football’s top table. Over 70,000 fans packed into San Siro and celebrated just hearing the Champions League anthem once again.
This is undoubtedly the competition in which Inter belong. And they proved that against Spurs.
Yes, they were unconvincing for a good hour of the contest, but they found a way to win. Proof that despite their time away the Italian side hasn’t forgotten the nouse required to clinch victory on the biggest stage.
The result also sets up Group B perfectly – for the neutral at least. Barcelona expectedly overcame PSV at the Camp Nou which means when they face Spurs at Wembley in two weeks time, the Premier League side will need a positive result.
Sloppy Spurs start slowly
After the defeat to Liverpool at the weekend a disappointed Pochettino admitted his side were “a little bit scared to play from the back.” It was a similar story in the opening 30 minutes at San Siro.
On several occasions Dávinson Sánchez and Jan Vertonghen would collect possession and look to shift the ball into their midfielders. But Inter pressed aggressively, restricting the time Mousa Dembélé and Eric Dier had on the ball and cutting off the option of feeding Christen Eriksen.
It meant the Tottenham midfield two had to be brave with the ball when they received it, but, in particular, Dier often took the easy option and put his side under pressure.
As the below screenshot shows, Spurs attempt to build from the back through Vertonghen, who has received the ball from Michel Vorm.
The Belgium international comes under pressure but waits for Dier to move into space so that Tottenham can beat the Inter press.
However, the England international, instead of turning out, plays a one-touch pass to Ben Davies.
The pass isn’t crisp and Politano is straight on the Wales international. He attempts to turn back but, under pressure, his touch is poor and the ball goes out of play.
There were several other instances during the opening half hour of Spurs players taking the easy option in possession instead of the brave option. And it put the visitors under pressure.
It was only when the intensity of Inter’s press dropped later in the opening period that Spurs began to break through the Italian’s side midfield and get the ball to Eriksen.
Nainggolan limitations at No.10 exposed
There were certainly eyebrows raised this summer when Nainggolan left his beloved AS Roma for Inter, but one of the main reasons behind the switch was the desire to once again work under Luciano Spalletti.
And, intriguingly, the Italian has opted to use the Belgian midfielder in the No.10 role this season.
Far from a conventional playmaker, Nainggolan’s primary task from his position just behind the striker is to spearhead Inter’s press. As touched upon above, it’s something he doesn’t very well.
But when Inter have possession and the 30-year-old is tasked with breaking defensive lines, his limitations are exposed.
Nainggolan didn’t complete a single dribble during his 88 minutes on the pitch, nor did he play any accurate crosses. His two key passes also didn’t lead to a chance for Inter, while he wasn’t involved in the build-up to Icardi’s equaliser.
Oh no. Oh no. Aurier
Tottenham’s failure to deal with set-pieces is a problem, and it’s hurting them over and over again. Against Inter it was down to an individual mistake, however, rather than a systemic issue.
As shown below, prior to the corner being take Serge Aurier is touch tight to Vecino on the penalty spot.
When the corner is delivered, it goes over the head of the Tottenham defender and he, thinking the danger has passed, allows the Uruguayan to drift off him and into the six yard box.
But Stefan de Vrij wins his header and directs the ball back into the six-yard box, where Vecino is now unmarked and in space.
When the Inter midfielder makes contact with the ball, Aurier is around four yards from his man. And the game is lost.
Icardi makes his mark
There is no doubting the Argentine has established himself as one of the world’s most lethal No.9s. Yet, incredibly, until tonight he had never played a minute of Champions League action.
So this was Icardi’s big night; a game in which to firmly solidify himself among the elite of the game.
But for almost 85 minutes it appeared as though the striker’s Champions League debut would turn out to be a damp squib. He had been on the periphery throughout and hadn’t registered a single shot on goal.
However, big players produce big moments and that is exactly what Icardi did with five minutes to play.
Kwadwo Asamoah broke down the left flank and delivered a cross to the edge of the penalty area. Icardi was lurking and with one swing of his right leg, caught the ball perfectly and his volley through into the bottom corner of Vorm’s next.
One shot. One shot on target. One goal. For those who didn’t know what Icardi was about, they certainly do now.