x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Diego Milito gives Rafa Benitez a boost

A goal and two assists from the Argentinian helps the European champions progress comfortably to the final of the Club World Cup.

Dejan Stankovic celebrates Inter's first goal of three against Seongnam in their Club World Cup semi-final in Abu Dhabi.
Dejan Stankovic celebrates Inter's first goal of three against Seongnam in their Club World Cup semi-final in Abu Dhabi.

Seongnam 0-3 Inter Milan
Inter Milan Stankovic 03’, Zanetti 32’, Milito 73’
Man of the match
Diego Milito (Inter Milan)

ABU DHABI // Diego Milito returned to the Inter Milan fold last night and provided under-fire manager Rafael Benitez the perfect tonic to his Italian troubles with a goal and two assists as the European champions progressed comfortably to the final of the Club World Cup.

The Spanish coach has been forced to watch in dismay as the treble-winning side he inherited from Jose Mourinho last summer managed just two wins in their past nine games.

When his image appeared on the massive screen at Zayed Sports City before kick off yesterday evening, it was met with loud jeers from the 35,995 spectators. Benitez would have been hoping for a comfortable win against Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, champions of Asia, but instead his troubles initially showed no signs of easing as Wesley Sneijder, Inter's Dutch playmaker, was forced off with a hamstring injury inside the opening minute.

"It was a little bit strange to lose Sneijder so early and it meant we had to change everything," said Benitez, who also confirmed the Dutchman is unlikely to be passed fit for Saturday's final against Africa's TP Mazembe.

And yet it was with Sneijder off the pitch and Thiago Motta, the Brazilian, yet to be given the signal from the referee to enter the fray, that the Italians opened the scoring.

Shin Tae-yong, the Seongnam coach, had identified Samuel Eto'o as Inter's dangerman and was disappointed by the ease with which the Cameroon international skipped between two defenders. Eto'o fed Milito, who in turn - somewhat fortuitously - shuffled the ball through to Dejan Stankovic to drive into the area and finish coolly past Jung Sung-ryong.

The Koreans looked rattled and it took them another 15 minutes before offering any sort of effort at Julio Cesar's goal. Mauricio Molina's shot from distance, however, was dragged well wide. As Seongnam pushed on in search of an equaliser, they looked increasingly vulnerable in defence and it was Molito again, 30 minutes after his first assist, who provided a beautiful back-heeled return pass as Inter doubled their lead through Javier Zanetti, the Nerazzurri captain.

Seongnam rallied and could have pulled one back were it not for a smart reaction save from Julio Cesar after Dzenan Radoncic got a strong head on to a Molina free-kick. They continued to threaten after the break with Choi Sung-kuk and Jo Jae-cheol both coming close.

But, inevitably, it was Milito again who scuppered the South Korean's slim hopes of a comeback. When Eto'o saw his shot parried by Sung-ryong, it was the former Genoa striker who was fastest to react, bundling the ball down before prodding home to cap a fine return to the side.

"Milito had some problems and we lost him at the beginning of the season when he played very well with the team and everything was going fine," Benitez said. "When he had injuries, we had to change everything and we had some good and some bad games.

"[Last night] he had a strong effect on the result, so he is a very important player for us and will continue to be so in the future."

The spectators clearly agreed. When Milito was replaced by Sulley Muntari in the 76th minute, a standing ovation was provided by some sections of the stadium.

Benitez will be hoping, with the help of the Argentine, he can secure his first silverware for Inter on Saturday night. And in doing so turn his frosty reception into warm-hearted recognition.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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