x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Never-say-die Samuel Eto'o lifts Inter Milan's Leonardo

Striker has been in tight situations before, but Italian side have a mountain to climb in Champions League.

Samuel Eto'o has been trying to inspire his Inter Milan side to overturn the three-goal deficit against Schalke tonight.
Samuel Eto'o has been trying to inspire his Inter Milan side to overturn the three-goal deficit against Schalke tonight.

Samuel Eto'o has been talking stridently over the past few days to his colleagues in the Inter Milan dressing room.

His theme has been one of his favourites: the spirit of never-say-die, the argument that no cause can ever be called lost.

Eto'o is the captain of the so-called Indomitable Lions, the Cameroon national team; so indomitability, he likes to claim, and defiance against the biggest adversity is part of his DNA.

"The players believe in the possibility of a comeback," said Leonardo, the head coach of Inter, ahead of tonight's second leg of the Champions League quarter-final at the home of Schalke 04.

The deficit is vast, given the German side's surprising 5-2 win in Milan against the title-holders eight days ago. But the believers in a recovery have a powerful spokesman.

"Samuel probably believes in it the strongest," Leonardo said. "He has been telling everyone about games he has seen and been involved in where sides did come back from a long way behind."

One of Eto'o's more resonant tales is picked from four years ago. He told his bruised audience of Inter players what had happened to his Barcelona side, then the European champions, in a Spanish Cup semi-final against Getafe, the suburban Madrid club.

Barcelona triumphed 5-1 in the first game of the two-legged tie and it was assumed they would be in the final. Then the ambush, the blitz. Getafe beat Barca 4-0 in the return, which put the underdogs through on the away goals rule.

"That Getafe match was one of the stories Samuel told," Leonardo said, "and they are great to hear."

Another of Eto'o's favourites comes from way back, the Olympic football final at the Sydney 2000 Games. His Cameroon trailed 2-0 to Spain at half time. By the end of extra time and penalties, gold medals were dangling from the African side's necks. Eto'o's discourse on the subject of stunning upsets and away wins can go on and on: it passes through a five-goal away win for little Real Mallorca, with a young Eto'o spearheading the attack, at Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium, and a 6-2 win at Real while he was representing Barcelona. These are the sort of scorelines Inter need to be targeting at Schalke.

Leonardo has his own memories, too, of dramatic turnarounds. He was still a squad player, in his mid-30s and on his way to retirement, when his AC Milan won the Champions League in 2003. The next season, he took a position on the scouting staff, rapidly becoming a respected executive at the club.

Leonardo would have good reason to be proud in early 2004 as he watched a young Brazilian whom he had been instrumental in bringing to AC Milan thrive in a Champions League quarter-final against Deportivo La Coruna. The player's name was Kaka, and his performance in the 4-1 win marked the arrival of Kaka as a global superstar.

But that, and other aspects of the triumph would soon be forgotten. In Galicia in the return leg, the most stunning turnaround in the knockout stages of the last decade of the Champions League took place. Leonardo watched as Kaka and company were over-run: Deportivo 4, AC Milan 0, the Spaniards through to the semi-finals.

It is that precedent that seems the most pertinent for Inter's determined optimists, principally because it took place in the last eight in the competition in which Inter strive for an improbably recovery.

But, like many of the more famous recoveries in European history, Deportivo were at home. Tonight, Inter are the away team, facing a noisy 50,000-plus crowd.

In his search for precedents, Leonardo ought to keep in mind his finest achievement yet in charge of Inter, when they beat Bayern Munich last month. They did so scoring three away goals in Germany, which is the minimum they need in Gelsenkirchen.


10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +5