Ultimatum to Inter after their victory in Abu Dhabi leads to the manager's departure after six months with the Italian giants.
Rafael Benitez shot himself in foot with Inter
The seeds of Rafael Benitez's demise as the Inter Milan coach were sown in Abu Dhabi, the surprise being ultimately that it was he who appeared to play the biggest role in his downfall.
The Spaniard had brought Inter to the Club World Cup competition under pressure to win the tournament and deflect attention from a disappointing Serie A title defence and an unconvincing passage through to the last 16 of the Champions League.
They did just that, winning both games they played in the capital 3-0, against Seongnam and TP Mazembe, respectively, and on paper it appeared a case of job done.
But at the press conference following the championship match at Zayed Sports City, Benitez seemed to precipitate his departure by demanding that the Inter board either back him by allowing him to buy at least three new players in the transfer window or talk to his agent about his future at the club.
Massimo Moratti, the Inter owner and president, did decide to look at Benitez's future at the club, and yesterday the European champions announced that they had reached "a mutually satisfactory agreement" with Benitez to terminate his contract, which ran until the end of next season.
"Inter thank Rafael Benitez for his work in leading his team to success in the Italian Super Cup and the Fifa Club World Cup," the club said on their website.
Moratti told the ANSA news agency: "I'm disappointed over the end of the relationship with Benitez, but the break-up had become pretty much inevitable."
Benitez thanked his players, as well as Inter supporters and officials, in a statement before adding, "It is my duty to thank president Massimo Moratti for having chosen me to coach Inter."
Leonardo, the former AC Milan coach, is considered the front-runner to have taken over for Benitez by the time the Serie A season resumes on January 6, with Inter, who are currently seventh in the table, hosting second-place Napoli.
Benitez's reign, which began in the summer after he took over from Jose Mourinho after leaving English Premier League side Liverpool, had been strained almost from the start, although he had a hard act to follow, with Mourinho having led Inter to the Serie A, Italian Cup and Champions League titles last season - the first such treble for an Italian club.
Under Benitez, Inter were beaten 2-0 by Atletico Madrid in the European Super Cup in August and opened the defence of their Champions League title in September with a disappointing 2-2 draw at the unheralded Dutch side FC Twente, who were making their debut in the competition.
Other failures followed, such as a 3-1 loss at Tottenham in Europe, and a painful 1-0 loss to Milan in the city derby last month.
In Benitez's defence, Inter has been devastated by a series of injuries to top players, with the likes of Julio Cesar, Maicon, Walter Samuel, Cristian Chivu, Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Zanetti and Diego Milito all missing large chunks of action.
In addition, the striker Samuel Eto'o was handed a three-match ban in Serie A for head-butting an opponent with Chievo Verona last month, and playmaker Wesley Sneijder has been far from his best after leading Holland to the World Cup final.
Sneijder acknowledged last month that he was suffering from anaemia.
Leonardo coached AC Milan last season but the term ended abruptly when the Brazilian clashed with Silvio Berlusconi, the club owner as well as the Italian prime minister.
Leonardo played for Milan for four years between 1997 and 2001 before returning to Brazil and working in a scouting role, in which he helped Milan secure the signings of Kaka and Alexandre Pato.
In 2008, he was appointed as Milan's technical director, then received his first coaching position in the wake of Carlo Ancelotti's departure to Chelsea.
Moratti gave no indication of his choice to replace Benitez. "All the names being tossed about for the future coach of Inter are interesting," he said.
* With agencies