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Apr 6, 2011

Leonardo lost for words

In spite of his renowned command of several languages, Inter coach Leonardo may not be familiar with the term 'bouncebackability' which, considering how cacophonous it sounds, may be to his credit.

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Bounce back was what Inter were expected to do after a crushing derby defeat on Saturday, but against Schalke they might have tried too hard and too fast, as Dejan Stankovic partially eclipsed the memory of the most significant long-range goal scored in a European competition in recent times - Nayim's strike for Real Zaragoza against Arsenal in the 1995 Cup Winners' Cup final - by volleying in from just inside the halfway line before a minute had passed. And it wasn't even a Neuer, er, new manner of scoring for the influential Serbian, who'd netted a similar goal at Genoa last year.

That, paired with a brilliant second goal scored by Diego Milito in his first start since February 3, was perhaps Inter's highlight of the night. The Argentinian again showed on 34 minutes why he is one of the most exquisite goalscorers in the world: watch how, after seemingly taking himself out of the action by holding the ball on the left side and passing it back to Wesley Sneijder, he ghosted back into the area, unnoticed by his marker, to stab home Esteban Cambiasso's header from the Dutchman's cross.

Before and after that, Inter crumbled despite creating some good chances. You could almost feel their fatigue from the stands as they laboured to keep up with Schalke's cool passing and possession, at one point chasing the ball while Raul, Jurado and Jefferson Farfan were passing it around.

Stunningly, despite playing with a 4-3-1-2 that was supposed to erect a barrier in front of the defence, and more so after twice taking a lead, Inter could not protect the central defenders, and the midfield trio were too often left chasing shadows as the visitors played quick one-twos which sliced through the would-be wall and forced Cristian Chivu and Andrea Ranocchia into too many one-on-ones. Chivu was sent off for the second time in four days, despite playing in what he sees as his best position, but that area never seemed secure as Schalke created three good headed chances within the first 15 minutes. Inter perhaps missed the suspended Lucio, but it would be clutching at straws to believe his presence could have papered over the cracks that kept appearing elsewhere.

This bad defeat will again arouse suspicions over Leonardo, which in itself demonstrates how quickly some things are forgotten in football. Having been hailed by the media and by his own players for the way he had rebuilt confidence and liberated Inter's talent after replacing Rafa Benitez, he had already been criticised for his tactical choices after the derby defeat and Tuesday's debacle was already generating fresh comment before Leonardo had even left the San Siro, hoarse and clinging to an impossible hope of turning things around in the return leg.

He may be right in saying balance was not the main problem on Tuesday night, that the defeat was less a matter of tactics than a combination of individual mistakes and situations, but he will have known, by the questions that were asked, that explanations will not be easily accepted this time.

One of the main sore points had been Inter's cavalier attitude in crucial games, but as Leonardo said, "I tried to pass my idea [of attacking football] on to the players when I arrived because we needed wins to climb back towards the top, and I couldn't just change everything once we got to this point." Still, with 31 goals conceded in 20 matches under him, the Nerazzurri enter most games fearing they may be expected to outscore opponents rather than grind out wins the way they did under Jose Mourinho last season.

The evidence from this game is that Schalke covered more ground with more effectiveness than Inter, who appeared fatigued in too many crucial positions: at one point, the home side had a two-on-two break that soon turned into a three-on-seven, as the visitors tracked back in numbers to snuff out any danger.

Inter may be forgiven for thinking things might have gone differently if, right after half-time, they had converted two great chances that fell to Milito and Samuel Eto'o, but the way Schalke were keeping the ball and letting it roll around, while moving well off it, meant you could not imagine them failing to score again.

As they did stretch Inter's rearguard on the flanks and bring play inside to cut through the middle, the home side were becoming increasingly frustrated by their own inability to get shots on target. With Kyriakos Papadopoulos stationed in front of the defence to create a 4-1-3-2 for Schalke, which at times turned into a tongue-twisting 4-1-3-1-1, the Nerazzurri could not find a way through the centre, and thus never threatened to score or pick up a free kick from there. Wesley Sneijder was often forced wide on the left to escape the net cast by Papadopoulos, and he actually created the two goals - plus the chance Milito missed early in the second half - from that position, but he was seen standing around too often while Inter's opponents were moving men forward in the middle of the park.

Inter must now wonder what comes next. Despite being five points behind Milan in Serie A, they are not out of the race and may actually gain ground again next Sunday, when they host Chievo while their cross-town rivals are away at Fiorentina. The Coppa Italia, part of last year's Treble, is still within Inter's grasp as they meet Roma in the semi-finals, but a question that needs to be answered is how the veteran players, some of whom appeared to be emotionally and physically spent against Schalke, will react to the challenge, and whether young Ranocchia, who has been playing hurt, will let the nightmarish game he had on Tuesday affect him.

It should be up to Leonardo to make sure it doesn't, and the Brazilian will be counted upon to mend the injured ego and wrecked confidence of some of his players and set them back on the road to quick recovery. He will not beat the snickering masses into trusting him, and he may not be God's gift to football coaching, but he has a job to do and his future with Inter, despite a contract covering all of next season and the unmitigated respect of owner Massimo Moratti, may well be decided in the next month.

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