The man under the scanner: Rafa Benitez
“Before the game, I know everybody, I love everybody. After the game, I know everybody, I love everybody. During the 90 minutes, I know nobody.” – The words came straight from the heart of a certain Portuguese genius known to the world as Jose “The Special” Mourinho when he led his team Inter Milan in the round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League season 2009-10 only to face his own ex disciples at the stadium he hogged the limelight for his life. The first leg of the contest had already been concluded and Inter were entering at the Stamford Bridge with their opponents trailing a goal deficit. Contrary to what the scorecard read, Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea were still reckoned the favorites to win the tie and send Mourinho packing. What happened for the next 90 minutes at Bridge remains history and needs no description.
Mourinho’s special road was not to end there. His induced percipience and his unending thirst for conquest marched the inspired Inter side to eliminate a rigorous CSKA Moscow, an insurmountable FC Barcelona and a propellant Bayern Munich on their way to claim the third European title in the much celebrated history of the club – one that came after 45 years of longing. Taking the accomplishments to another level, Inter completed the perfect treble by claiming both the Serie A and Coppa Italia titles to mark it as the most memorable season in the club’s antiquity.
The proceedings did not carry further in the manner Massimo Morrati would have wished they would. The Italian could not stop Mourinho parting ways with the club after a truly eventful season. In a span of one year, Serie A lost two of the most prolific coaches world over – first in Carlo Ancelotti and then in Mourinho. What followed raised enough brows all around Europe. Morrati decided to hire services of the sacked Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez. This decision was according to many not in sync with the stature Inter had managed to wear at the end of an extremely fruitful season. Rafa brought with him the reputation of unpredictable and on much instances, illogical gestures that would on numerous occasions put club’s fortunes against dangling question marks.
Things did not begin all too badly as Inter managed to bag fourth title in an extension to the previous season by beating Italian rivals AS Roma in the Supercoppa Italiana. The joy however was to be short lived as Spanish outfit Atletico Madrid – champions from UEFA Europa League – got the better off the European champions in the UEFA Super Cup only four days later to the triumph over Roma. The start to the Serie A never excited the fans and the intent of the true Nerazzurri flavor of football has so far appeared to have gone for a hiatus. Injuries have their own version to present but the bottom-line remains that Inter have only been their shadow thus far in the season. A 2-1 loss to the lowly competent Chievo in the latest round of the domestic league only makes matters worse for Benitez. Complacency, lack of hunger to win more, motivational drought, transition under the new manager and many more rationalizations have been put into their place but given the nature of the progress the reigning champions have exercised, one cannot help but wonder whether it was only the astoundingly influential presence of Mourinho that won Inter everything there was to win and that his departure has simply led the debacle that is seen happen today.
A Flashback into Mourinho Era
When the Portuguese took over as the head coach of Inter during the year 2008, the club was already riding over a purple patch. The domestic rivals were not able to challenge them over a league title and Roberto Mancini had found out a cohesive unit that meant business.
If not for higher ambitions of Massimo Morrati to make the team’s presence felt in the European competitions, Mancini would never have been replaced. But things were to unfold only the way they did and Mourinho was the new boss of an already champion team. That made his job much easier than the one he had at London.
Albeit, Mourinho had his agenda crisp and clear. The domestic dominance had already been complied by his predecessor. His was the mission to make things count big in Europe. It took him a not so illustrious one year at Inter to comprehend the Italian idea of football but once he managed a hold over it, he left no stone unturned in overhauling the Inter team into a unit that hardly appeared threatening initially at the European stage but as things progressed it started to look more and more menacingly dangerous to the already big names in Europe.
Mourinho managed to clearly identify the troubles with his side and addressed them to the point. He did not hesitate in getting rid of the goal machine Zlatan Ibrahimovic and acquired the services in return of a man who had proven his worth in European competitions time and again. The swap deal with Barcelona that presented a certain Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o to the San Siro is still considered one of its kind. Eto’o immediately churned his impact scoring goals at crucial stages in the competition – one against Rubin Kazan in the group stages that sealed a place for Inter in the next stage followed by the winner at Stamford Bridge to go past Mourinho’s ex club Chelsea.
The Special One did not waste any time in understanding Eto’o was never a replacement for Ibrahimovic as the Swede was more famous in demolishing the small teams with a prolonged scoring spree. Eto’o on the other hand was known more for his resilience against the best defenses in world football. Mourinho had already thought of Ibracadabra’s replacement in the new signing – Alberto Diego Milito – that he had brought a couple of months in advance to Ibra’s departure. The ex-Genoa striker looked tailor made in the Inter setup as he managed to aggregate a sparkling 30 goals in 51 senior appearances. One thing that Massimo Morrati would owe Mourinho for a lifetime would be the arrival of Wesley Sneijder in the Black & Blue colors.
The Dutch man who was deemed surplus at Santiago Bernabeu following an unending shopping spree turned out to be the protagonist to surge Inter’s fortunes at the highest level. Sneijder fitted with utmost precision into the Mourinho idea of Inter and demonstrated an unparallel excellence for the whole season helping his team build an ascendant factory.
Half the battle was won right when Mourinho spotted the limitations of his side. He always preferred to respect his opponents while strategizing his tactical methods. He correctly assumed the supremacy teams like Barcelona and Chelsea would command at home and rightly chose a containing approach defending a hard fought lead his team had managed back home. His knack in understanding each team’s strengths and weaknesses was commendable. He always knew the right man for the right job and with-in the limitations of his squad, his tactical brilliance helped him drub the toughest oppositions in Europe. Under Mourinho, Inter stopped to remain content over domestic superiority and started to believe they could break the shackles.
Sudden exit of the boss
Although Mourinho’s departure cannot be literally termed sudden as half the world was aware of his unhealthy relations with Italian press and management, it still came as a shocker to the players who had impeccably gelled with their man. There were speculations about Maicon and Milito following their former boss to Madrid but they were eventually rested for carrying no substance. However, the bond that the players had developed with Mourinho suffered the most which was acknowledged by the Portuguese himself too.
Has Mourinho's departure led to the draught of form for Inter?
The collective unity of an obstinate congregation was straight disturbed at the exit of its ring master. The same set of players under the leadership of a new manager have not yet been able to form the unit they were under Mourinho.
Change in approach
Jose Mourinho has always been reckoned to be an articulator who follows his heart whereas Rafa Benitez is regarded as a completely capricious customer. This happens to be his first stint in Italy – a place that is believed not to be so friendly neighborhood. With enough experience at his helm, Rafa would have his own propositions and may well choose to roll his dices the way that suits best to his own ideas. The contradiction in his techniques with those of Mourinho may ultimately ask too much from the players as suddenly they may find themselves in a completely unfamiliar proximity. With the pressure looming from every corner to deliver consistent performances of highest level, Inter players might have found it a little too much to deal with the steep change after the introduction of their new manager.
Fitness issues disrupting team’s cause
Part of credit for Mourinho’s success must be shared with the technical department and support staff who assured the first team squad remains fully fit for most part of the season. This helped Mourinho maintain the best composition over a period long enough to find the right homogeneousness.
Unfortunately, the technical staff does not have the same story to share this season. Ever since Benitez has taken over, injury prone players have always remained in and out of the first team trainings making it extremely difficult for Rafa to single it down on a certain set of players to start most of the games if not all.
As of today, many including last season’s key players Maicon and Walter Samuel are indefinitely out due to multiple injuries. This in no way helps the cause for Benitez to meet fans’ expectations.
Age, indifference and tactical woes
Inter at present do not boast of the most exciting average age of their squad in Europe. Most of the regular starters are nearing to thirties, if not already in. Wesley Sneijder at 26 is the only one to have still got a remainder of four to five more seasons where he can carry on at his imperial best.
The indifferent form from many of last season’s protagonists has made Rafa scratch his head and it is about time he looked deep into the replacements. It might be a little premature but not ridiculous to assume that the likes of Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Lucio may have played the last season for one last time at the best of their abilities. Expecting them to ride on the same form and keep replicating last season’s heroics may prove to be a little too much.
Add to that the sluggish and undisciplined display of form by the midfield and it takes Moratti’s woes to another level. Stankovic, Pandev, Sneijder have all remained off colors lately and have lacked the intent. The spark is missing in the second third and the team badly needs the players to rediscover their lost touch. Untimely injuries to Thiago Motta and Esteban Cambiasso have made things harder for Javier Zanetti as there is nobody to shoulder responsibility to hold the midfield.
Dejan Stankovic – a naturally quick-footed attack minded midfielder has hence been reduced to a defensive one and this asks him a lot to compromise on his aspirations. He is a wonderful player right behind the strikers but playing so deep in midfield does not really appear to be his forte.
Samuel Eto’o looks to be the only one to have kept the ignited soul of the last season intact and as a matter of fact, has been the sole source of inspiration, if any for Inter this season. Benitez has yet failed to find the correct combination to play upfront along with the Cameroonian but once Milito regains full fitness, it should not be a matter of much scrutiny and both the talismanic strikers are bound to find the net.
The defensive line that looked invincible for over a year has looked shaky and disjointed to say the least. The backline is the worst hit by the array of injuries. The replacements are yet to build a reputation for themselves but so far they have disappointed.
To add to the pains of Benitez, Inter are not able to field their first choice goalkeeper too. The Brazilian Julio Cezar, having marginalized all his counterparts in Europe during the season gone by has been warming the bench these days courtesy a prolonged injury. He however is believed to be back before the Christmas break and that should much boost up Benitez & co.
Inter are next to meet FC Twente in the mid-week Champions League group fixture. The champions must win the game to avoid any statistical concerns before they enter into the last group game against Werder Bremen.
This is the perfect stage to regain the much needed confidence by registering a comprehensive victory and mounting their name atop of the table. Next in line is a streak of crucial encounters in Serie A where they are to face Parma, Lazio and Fiorentina in that order. The Coppa Italia campaign is scheduled to begin in the month of January.
Amidst the tight calendar, it is very important for Benitez to keep the squad tightly knit in order to maximize the results. Rafa must not forget that he is heading a squad that has potentially won everything it can and may well be low on self motivation. The sense of complacency must be eliminated and the onus lies on the Spaniard.
The need of the hour is to maintain the hold over one’s nerves and it would mark the highest testimony of Rafa’s managerial credentials should he succeed to inspire his side to bag more titles from here on. An SOS call to his precursor in Madrid may not be a possibility to ridicule but as per what the world knows The Special One to be, all he can do to help Benitez is say “Good luck” and hang up.