x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Benitez, a man walking on thin ice at Inter Milan

Comparisons with Mourinho's warm relationships with many players have always stalked Benitez with his cooler approach while his engagements with his bosses have always been politically charged.

There are voices of dissent from the players as well about Rafa's style of functioning.
There are voices of dissent from the players as well about Rafa's style of functioning.

Inter Milan returned to northern Italy the day after their triumph in the Club World Cup to find the temperatures a great deal chillier than in Abu Dhabi.

At least the journey home had prepared them for sub-zero atmospheres. An extremely icy mood had been created between Rafa Benitez, the head coach, and several individuals by events during and after the final, which Inter won 3-0 with some ease against TP Mazembe.

From the moment he gave his post-match press conference, Benitez knew he would either have to reconcile himself to working constructively to thaw broken relationships, or to spend the next seven months in a continuing state of froideur with his employers and senior players.

Or else that he has to leave the club he joined less than six months ago.

The latter option appeared the likeliest yesterday, once Benitez had used his public appearance after the win over the African champions to challenge his employers to enter the January transfer market vigorously.

"The club are well aware that we need three new players," Benitez announced while Inter supporters were celebrating the title of club champions of the world. Nor did he stop there. "We need those players now, not in mid or late January, but at the beginning."

And if he did not get them? "We can carry on until the end of the season with tired players and with me being made responsible for that situation. The club must support me now. I was told I could bring in three players when I arrived and they have not come. Apart from three new ones, we now also need a defender to replace Walter Samuel, who is injured."

Then he all but spelled out the ultimatum. "If not, the club can speak to my agent."

By yesterday morning, Inter's president Massimo Moratti was strongly considering the last course of action - a parting of ways, and a negotiated pay-off - with the club drawing up a provisional list of possible replacements for Benitez, including Luciano Spalletti, the former Roma coach, Leonardo, the former AC Milan coach, and Walter Zenga, the former Inter goalkeeper.

Gazetta Dello Sport, the leading Italian daily, even ran with the headline: "Benítez e' Fuori!" (Benitez is out), although is agent yesterday dismissed claims the Spaniard had been given the boot.

Moratti slammed Benitez for having made himself such a killjoy at the moment they celebrated their first global club triumph since winning the Intercontinental Cup of 1996. "These were inappropriate comments," Moratti said.

Nor was he the only man grumbling through the celebrations. Marco Materazzi, the veteran Italian defender and one of the loudest voices within the Inter dressing-room, pointedly failed to pick up his gold medal, having been an unused substitute in the final.

"This is a victory for the club," Materazzi said. "What Benitez does is not so relevant." Ouch.

There was further bitterness from Dejan Stankovic, a long-serving player at the club having joined from Lazio in 2004. Stankovic had started on the bench, having scored in the semi-final: "I can't hide my disappointment," he told reporters. "The wound is still open."

Materazzi, certainly, would have recalled how, in the Champions League final last May, when Inter were winning 2-0, Benitez's predecessor Jose Mourinho had brought him on as a late replacement so he could share meaningfully in the glory.

At 2-0 up against Mazembe, Materazzi stayed seated. Mourinho himself had earlier, typically, contributed to the build-up by saying he would be wearing his Inter jersey as he watched the final on television in Madrid.

Comparisons with Mourinho have stalked Benitez since July, particularly those that measure the Portuguese coach's warm relationships with many players and Benitez's cooler approach.

In this Benitez will make no apologies. In none of his jobs - and throughout his successes at Valencia and Liverpool - has he ever sought great bonhomie with his footballers. And his engagements with his bosses have always been politically charged, with Benitez often using the media to bargain for better terms, and higher budgets for hiring.

Moratti, however, is a different sort of president than the various men Benitez worked under at Liverpool, and indeed the volatile board of Valencia while he was there. Their confrontation had been building for some time.

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Part of Benitez's concern about reinforcements came from how far Inter had fallen behind in the Serie A title race before they set off for Abu Dhabi.

Had he waited an hour or two before launching his premeditated ultimatum, he might have been in a better mood. He would have heard that the leaders AC Milan had lost at home to Roma, thanks to a goal from Marco Borriello.

Wins for Lazio and Napoli mean the gap between top spot and second and third places is now three points. Inter, with two games in hand and in seventh, trail Milan by 13 points.

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Juventus failed to capitalise on Milan's slip-up and Inter's absence. They were leading 1-0 at plucky Chievo well into injury time thanks to Fabio Quagliarella's spectacular volley, but a late equaliser from Sergio Pellissier meant they took only a point from Verona.

sports@thenational.ae