x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Knives being sharpened for Benitez

The last time he prepared a team for a Club World Cup semi-final the much travelled manager was at the peak of his powers five years back.

Inter Milan players during a training session at Zayed Sports City yesterday.
Inter Milan players during a training session at Zayed Sports City yesterday.

ABU DHABI // The last time Rafa Benitez prepared a team for a Club World Cup semi-final the much travelled manager was at the peak of his powers, having a few months earlier hit a career high by guiding Liverpool to a European Champions League triumph over AC Milan.

Five years on from that memorable night in Istanbul when Benitez's men recovered from a 3-0 deficit to draw level and finally get the better of the Italian giants in a penalty shoot-out, the Spaniard finds himself at a career crossroads.

While Liverpool's failure to add the Club World Cup to their European Cup on that occasion - the Brazilians of Sao Paulo beat them in the final - did not unduly worry Benitez, anything other than success over the next four days could be calamitous for him.

Not even halfway through his first season at Inter Milan as successor to Jose Mourinho, the knives are out for Benitez.

The Inter team he inherited, winners of three trophies last term, have managed only two victories in their last nine outings and were beaten 3-0 by Werder Bremen in last week's concluding Champions League Group A fixture.

The South Koreans of Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, lifted by their victory over Al Wahda in the quarter-finals, represent the proverbial banana skin to Benitez and his team.

Defeat is unthinkable but on present form is a distinct possibility.

Benitez made a determined effort yesterday to convey the message that "everything is very positive" in the Inter camp for what could be a watershed period in their season.

"Everybody has trained well and everybody is cheerful," he said as he refused to divulge which 11 of the 23 players from 13 different nationalities will start the match.

Asked how big a shock it would be for Italian football if his men were eliminated before Saturday's final, Benitez said: "I don't speak for Italy, just on behalf of Inter and this is a match that we are convinced we can win.

"My players are calm and content and I think we are very strong. We are here to win this competition and I believe we can do that."

Diego Milito, Inter's Argentine striker, maintained that the European champions were in buoyant mood, despite disappointing results. "Everybody wants to play in this match which is always a good sign," he said.

Milito, 31, whose scoring prowess was instrumental in Inter's treble success last term, is back in action after injury and according to his coach scored a wonder goal in training yesterday.

"It would be nice to score for real in the match," Milito said. "But the main thing is that we win - it doesn't matter who gets the goals.

"This is a unique occasion for us. You never know when you will have another chance in your career to play in this competition.

"I would give anything to win this trophy because it is important for us to reach another of our objectives. But we will need to be at our maximum to do so."

wjohnson@thenational.ae