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Saturday, 28 August 2010

Rafa's baptism of fire

Earlier this week, Jose Mourinho claimed that his old foe and successor as Inter Milan manager Rafael Benitez had inherited an 'easy job' at the San Siro. The 50 year old Spaniard has since made it clear that he doesn't agree with this assessment, but if he did privately harbour any complacency regarding the task at hand, then Friday's European Super Cup defeat to an impressive Atletico Madrid will serve as a timely reminder of the challenges which lie ahead for him and his team.

Benitez's Inter were a pale shadow of the side which ruthlessly dispatched all comers in Europe last year. They lacked a creative spark in attack, intensity in midfield and - perhaps most surprising of all to those who witnessed the Nerazzurri's triumph last season - organisation at the back. These deficiencies grew more apparent as the game wore on and the Italian giants appeared to tire, culminating in the alarming ease with which Sergio Aguero tapped in the decisive second goal with seven minutes remaining. If the former Liverpool manager was looking to let his team's performance provide a defiant riposte to the jibes of the Special One, he must surely have been disappointed with the message sent by his players.

After the match, Benitez himself cited a lack of preparation time with his World Cup players as the main reason behind the lethargic performance, admitting that more disappointment may be in store for Inter fans whilst the team gets up to speed. That the likes of Sneijder, Lucio and Maicon were not at their imperious best in Monaco should come as no surprise - the lack of a pre-season for players who featured prominently at the World Cup has posed a problem for all of the major European clubs. It is also natural that a club of the stature of Inter, with so many individuals having negotiated a busy summer, should suffer more than Atletico. But if fans of the Italian giants are looking for reasons to remain positive about their side's hopes of making a good start to the season, they need look no further than Premier League champions Chelsea. Having looked decidedly off the pace in the Community Shield at Wembley, the Blues have since gone on to win their first three league matches, scoring fourteen goals without reply in the process. Inter are more than capable of achieving the same feat.

Despite Friday's setback, Benitez's immediate prospects for success at the San Siro remain very good. The Spaniard may face the unenviable task of being the first manager in the history of European football to have to immediately follow a treble-winning manager, but he has also inherited a treble-winning side. Inter have lost none of the key players who helped establish their supremacy at home and abroad last season, and with promising youngsters such as Davide Santon and Coutinho developing nicely, there is even an argument to be made that the Nerazzurri boast a stronger playing squad now than they did 12 months ago. Moreover, the new manager is not likely to face a struggle to impose his own tactical philosophy on the team, since it was in playing Benitez's favoured pragmatic 4-2-3-1 formation under Jose Mourinho that Inter enjoyed their greatest successes last year.

There are further reasons for optimism off the field. The sale of Mario Balotelli to Manchester City was as much the removal of a problem as it was the loss of a promising young talent, and although the latest edition of the Swiss Ramble (see page bottom for link) has it on good authority that Nerazzurri owner Massimo Moratti will not delve into his own pockets to provide a war-chest for his new manager, it is likely that the millions received from Eastlands will be available should Benitez require it. The Spaniard also has the privilege of managing the dominant force in what must be considered the least competitive of all Europe's major leagues. Inter have won Serie A in each of the last 5 seasons, and there has been nothing in the way of significant transfer activity this summer that suggests a changing of the guard is imminent. If Inter's domestic supremacy remains without serious challenge, then Benitez will find himself free to concentrate his resources on the Champions League - a stage upon which he has already proved himself an extremely able operator.

But superior ability and opportunity breeds expectation. Whilst only the foolishly misguided among the Nerazzurri faithful would dare to expect a repeat of last season's exceptional treble, there is no doubt that no one associated with the Milan club would tolerate any less than a sixth consecutive Serie A title. Last season's triumph in Madrid may have sated Inter's previously all-consuming desire to reclaim Europe's premier club trophy for the first time since 1965, but the Italian giants have come to take their domestic dominance for granted. If Benitez is to make his own mark at the San Siro, he must rediscover the consistency which was the foundation of his success at Valencia; the same consistency which deserted him at Anfield.

Major trophies are not won in the first few months of a season, but Benitez will know that they are not won at all with the kind of lifeless display exhibited by his side in Monaco on Friday. Atletico's triumph is a warning that much work remains to be done if Jose Mourinho's successor is to perpetuate the myth of Inter Milan as an 'easy job', and to continue the Italian giants' proud recent tradition of success.

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