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Dec 7, 2010

Benitez must bring home the World

There's an old Italian song, which people born before the '80s will recall with ease, whose first sentence goes "If you're nice, they'll stone you". However difficult it may be to label someone as nice simply based on his exchanges with the media, those lyrics may well apply to Rafael Benitez.

He's nice (the English media are free to question this based on their experience, of course). And he's getting pelted with metaphorical chunks of marble whenever he's in public.

His cardinal sin? Basically, not being Jose Mourinho, which is particularly ironic considering how deep the divide between the two has been since that day at Anfield when, according to the Portuguese, Liverpool scored a non-goal in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Chelsea and went on to qualify for the final.

Benitez's Inter currently sit ten points behind Serie A leaders and local rivals Milan and that is simply not acceptable at a club that has now grown used to winning, having emerged from the black clouds that had hung over it for decades.

Several of the reasons for the ineptitude that prevented the Nerazzurri from clinching a title from 1989 to 2006 stemmed from what emerged in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal, but others originated from Inter's singular tendency to self-destruct, to - adapting one of former New York Yankees star Yogi Berra's quips - come to a fork in the road, take it and stick it in their own sides.

Owner Massimo Moratti has admitted having second thoughts about hiring Benitez. As recently as two weeks ago, he revealed he'd have sacked the Spaniard if the same situation had arisen ten years ago. He's more patient now, more mature, he said. Or perhaps some of the past mistakes flashed before his eyes. The knee-jerk reactions to a string of defeats, to barren stretches of ugly play, to pressure from fans of which Moratti himself, sometimes to a fault, is one. This is not going to happen with Benitez, he said.

But the Spaniard, all smiles and polite, carefully worded and courteous replies to even the most outrageous, repetitive questions - how many times can you prod a man about January transfers without feeling a fool or making him sound like one? - will have to show something.

He will have to bring home the FIFA Club World Cup, a trophy Moratti seems obsessed about in the same manner AC Milan were the last time they played it. Few others in Italy seem to care about that tournament, considering the unimpressive line-up of participating sides. You can make an argument that getting out of Group A in the Champions League constitutes a more significant achievement, but the event in Abu Dhabi has now apparently become a potential turning point for Benitez.

So much so that 11 players were left out of the squad that travelled to Bremen for Inter's final group A match - a 3-0 defeat, as it turned out - so they could rest and rehabilitate before Inter leave for the tournament. Among them are long-term casualty Walter Samuel, lost for the season with a knee ligament injury, plus Julio Cesar, Diego Milito, Lucio, Dejan Stankovic, Wesley Sneijder, Coutinho and Maicon.

Injuries have played such a great part in Inter's struggles this season that Benitez has repeatedly been called into question for his training and physical conditioning methods. They apparently involve more running and weight training than under Mourinho. At one point, when a newspaper compiled a list of injuries - mostly muscle ones - to hit Inter players since they got together in July, Benitez almost snapped. He pointed to his degree in physical education and previous spells at Valencia and Liverpool as proof there's nothing wrong with his staff and regimen, and he added some of his best performers came back exhausted from the World Cup. He also remarked on how other teams with similar injury problems - Juventus, in particular - have not been put under the same kind of scrutiny.

Still, Mourinho's right-hand man, Rui Faria, speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport, criticised Benitez for the shape and condition of his players, and the issue will not go away unless Inter players recover dramatically and no more serious injuries befall them for the remainder of the season. Injuries, whatever their origins, have played a great part in putting the brakes on Inter's season. It has been pointed out, quite correctly, that inexperienced players like Coutinho and Obi would never have made it to the pitch in important matches under Mourinho, but Benitez had to use them and others in difficult circumstances.

At Chievo two weeks ago, a game the Nerazzurri lost 2-1, Denis Alibec, Nwankwo and Amantino Mancini were in the side that finished the match, while full-back Davide Santon, 19, another young player who got his break under Mourinho before falling victim to injuries and loss of form, has hardly endeared himself to the new manager by putting in a series of indifferent displays.

It must not have done much for Santon's confidence hearing Benitez say he's too attack-minded as a full-back, and heaven knows what being replaced at half-time by an even younger player, Felice Natalino, will mean for him. It wasn't long ago - in fact, just go back to August - that Santon was projected as the long-term replacement for Maicon on the right with Gareth Bale joining Inter as a force on the left. Now he's spending most of the time on the fringes of the side despite the rash of injuries to several team-mates.

Ineffective performances by too many key players seem to be the norm for Inter now, and this has been widely put down to the indifferent attitude the side now possesses. Whereas Mourinho's Inter hit on 4-2-3-1 as the perfect platform for their stars to produce, a similar formation has not appeared to bring out the best this season.

At first, Benitez seemed to have struck the right note with Samuel Eto'o, who had willingly sacrificed his attacking skills last season by doubling as a winger-cum-defender, mostly on the right. After letting the new coach know he would not wish to repeat that experience, as rewarding as it had been, Eto'o started the season again in a wide position, but on the left and with greater licence to cut inside and use his favourite right foot.

A perfect example was his goal at Twente in the inaugural Champions League match of the season. Eto'o started the first eight matches on the left, scoring eight goals, then became a central striker once injuries and a loss of form kept out Diego Milito, who'd struggled to get back in the goal-scoring groove he enjoyed last season. The two were paired up front against Brescia in a 4-4-2, Eto'o scoring from the penalty spot, and again in the Milan derby in a 4-3-1-2, with Sneijder moving between the lines, but Milito lasted only 45 minutes before going off injured, and has not been seen since.

Faced with such a variety of permutations and problems - the first banner supporting him appeared at San Siro on September 9, which of course meant those who hung it believed he already needed moral comfort - Benitez has not been able to settle on a first XI good enough to carry him through the bad times. His pre-season plan to turn Inter from a side that defended deep, plugged all defensive holes then sprung forward, as seen with sublime efficiency in the latter first half of 2010, to one which kept more possession and put pressure higher up in the opponents' half has not been completed yet.

In a way, you could say Benitez has his side playing the way he faces the press, much as Mourinho did. The Spaniard will keep possession with words, play with them in a smooth, patient manner and stand up to a questioner openly, while the Portuguese would wait for the right moment before counter-attacking with verbal salvos that'd leave interviewers irritated and searching for a follow-up question of similar impact.

Rarely has a former coach's name been mentioned as frequently as Mourinho's has been around Inter, but it's a fact Benitez himself would have known before acceping Moratti's offer. Perhaps the never-ending face-off between the two would have been easier in the Premier League, when at least the Portuguese had a side to send out on the pitch. Now, Benitez finds himself having to deal with someone who's not even on the opposing bench or in the same country.

Is there a way out of this? Bringing the Club World Cup home would give Benitez a huge break, but you wonder what would happen next, if no new blood is brought in the January transfer window. Sensing perhaps the balance of power was shifting towards the other half of Milan, he has quietly but repeatedly asked for reinforcements since that late August day when Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined the Rossoneri. This has caused some friction with Moratti, who believes the squad is good enough to compete despite the loss of Mario Balotelli, who would have helped Inter immensely this season.

No one can argue Benitez has had fewer resources to work with than his precedessor. No-one said it would be easy to coax another great season from a group of veterans who are starting to get long in the tooth and were rarely rested in the stretch run of 2009-10. No-one could reasonably have expected Inter to be Treble champions again, even though this can still be achieved on paper.

The bottom line, though, is the Nerazzurri seem to have lost ground to Milan, Juventus and Lazio, and this will not sit well with Moratti.

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