Angel di Maria's late intervention spared Real Madrid another inquest into the case of the misfiring forwards while Zlatan Ibrahimovic's sense of occasion salvaged a Champions League point for AC Milan.
Di Maria struck shortly after coming on to give Real a 1-0 win away to Auxerre on Tuesday, just as another embarrassing goalless draw was looming for a team boasting Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema in the starting line-up.
While Real were nervously clinching a second win in two Champions League games, Group G rivals Milan had to settle for a 1-1 draw at Ajax Amsterdam.
Ibrahimovic earned them the point, controlling superbly and smashing in for the equaliser on his return to the club where he came to prominence.
Bayern Munich, last season's runners-up, were also behind at Basel in Group E before Bastian Schweinsteiger struck a controversial penalty and grabbed a second a minute from time to give the Germans a 2-1 victory.
Roma won by the same scoreline at home to CFR Cluj in the other Group E game while there were more comfortable wins for English rivals Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as Spartak Moscow and Shakhtar Donetsk.
Chelsea scored twice in the first half to set up an easy 2-0 win at home to Olympique Marseille in Group F, where earlier Spartak had beaten Zilina 3-0.
Arsenal were shaky at the back at times against Partizan Belgrade in Group H but came away with a 3-1 win - making it nine goals in two games after their 6-0 win over Braga.
LACK OF FIREWORKS
Jose Mourinho, hired by Real after winning the Champions League with Inter Milan last season, could do with similar fireworks as he seeks to become the first coach to win the competition with three different clubs.
Real have had no trouble dominating possession under his leadership but have scored only six goals in five La Liga games, including two goalless draws.
They did manage a 2-0 win over Ajax in their Champions League opener but that was scant reward for their dominance.
They were clearly superior again on Tuesday but needed Mesut Ozil and Di Maria to come off the bench to provide fresh impetus, the Argentine chesting the ball down in the area before volleying into the corner for the winner, as Auxerre players claimed Sergio Ramos had handled the ball in the build-up.
"When I came here, this team had defensive problems," Mourinho said in his own defence. "Now we are more solid but we still need to find our stride in attack."
Real top the group with six points, with Milan second on four. Real host Milan next in a clash of two sides who have won the European Cup 16 times between them.
Four-times winners Bayern also have maximum points in Group E after Schweinsteiger's late heroics, while Chelsea and Spartak are making all the running in Group F with six points apiece.
Chelsea's victory was in no doubt once John Terry had squeezed the ball home with the outside of his left boot for an opener in the seventh minute.
Nicolas Anelka dinked in the second from the penalty spot as Chelsea safely avoided what could have been a third straight defeat in all competitions.
Arsenal have six points in Group H along with Shakhtar, who beat Braga 3-0, Brazilian winger Douglas Costa creating two goals and scoring another.
Arsenal played brilliantly at times in Belgrade but flirted with trouble, eventually winning through goals from Andrei Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh and Sebastien Squillaci.
Cleo scored a penalty for Partizan and missed another after the hosts had Marko Jovanovic sent off in the second half. Arshavin also missed a penalty for Arsenal in a frantic game that went ahead despite multiple floodlight failure.