Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Jose Mourinho swept back into Milan yesterday, strolling triumphantly through the arrivals hall at Malpensa airport.
The return of the Special One was always going to be big news and the Inter fans had gathered in numbers to hail the man who had led the club to an amazing Treble last season – a couple had even paid €320 for a room in the same hotel as Real Madrid just to say they had “slept” close to the man with the Midas touch.
In the early hours of this morning Rafa Benitez slipped quietly back through the same airport with no more than a sideways glance from a couple of cleaners and a few other weary travellers.
Having lost their Mou-Jo in the summer, Inter are becoming a pale shadow of their former self with each passing week and Benitez cannot seem to correct the slide which has seen the Nerazzurri drop off top place both at home and in their Champions League group.
Of course, they had a worse start in Europe last season when they could easily have gone out early on, but you always felt there was a steely resolve coupled with Jose’s tactical cunning to see them through.
Bale and co. gave Rafa plenty to ponder
Going into the game at Tottenham, Benitez had been forewarned off Gareth Bale’s pace and for that reason decided that the speedy Jonathan Biabiany should play in front of the labouring and out-of-sorts Douglas Maicon.
Unfortunately, the French winger was neither a defensive reinforcement nor an attacking threat so it was puzzling why he remained on the pitch for so long when the sharp and in-form Coutinho was left on the bench having done so much to hurt Harry Redknapp‘s side in the previous meeting.
One of the secrets of Mourinho’s success was his willingness to change his tactics quickly if he saw that his plans were not working - even if it was only ten minutes into the game.
The Spaniard’s reluctance to change allowed a situation to develop whereby Bale was embarrassing Maicon every time he picked up the ball. The right flank had already been torn to shreds long before Benitez made a change in personnel, and this was after the forewarning of the last 35 minutes of the home tie against Spurs where the same happened.
It was always going to be an evening where pace and the directness of the home side needed to be nullified, but with Biabiany and Goran Pandev pushing high up the flanks and Wesley Sneijder a mere spectator in the middle, there were massive gaps through the centre for the likes of Modric and Van der Vaart to exploit.
No doubt the presence of Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic in the centre of midfield would have ensured Spurs did not have quite the same freedom to pin Inter to the edge of their own area, which was the what ultimately led to the first goal.
Neither Sully Muntari or Javier Zanetti got close enough to their opposite numbers and they are not the type of players at ease moving the ball forward, which meant that Sneijder was forced to drop back further to instigate attacks which in turn left Samuel Eto’o isolated.
"Still, at least we had fewer offsides..."
However, even when out-numbered, the Cameroon striker caused the home defence all sorts of problems and his well-taken goal, which he made for himself, gave hope of something better with ten minutes remaining.
What Benitez will hopefully have learnt from this sobering experience is that Eto’o needs to play alongside Diego Milito in a front two, with Sneijder in behind.
The Argentine’s belated entry seemed to make the lights finally come on throughout the team, with his first run taking him into a shooting position and visibly giving his team-mates some much-needed belief.
Another rasping drive which clipped the bar when the game was already lost suggests that the Prince will be back on the goal trail soon.
Ideally, Inter would line-up with the aforementioned trio pushing forward, with Zanetti on the right, Cambiasso in the centre and Stankovic on the left of the midfield.
The defence is what it is, and Maicon and Cristian Chivu, who once again had words with Benitez during the game over his positioning, would benefit from experience and a bit of bite in front of them, while Lucio and Walter Samuel are aging but still massively effective central defenders.
Victory at home to Twente in three weeks time will ensure safe passage to the knock-out stages and provide Benitez with another bargaining chip when trying to persuade Massimo Moratti that he needs to open the cheque book in January.
All is not lost, but clearly that Inter swagger - like Mourinho - is long gone.
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