x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Tale of two cities for Eto'o

This evening, in two great football cities of southern Europe, Samuel Eto'o will be the centre of attention.

Samuel Eto'o, so prolific in Spain, has scored just three goals this season for Inter in Serie A.
Samuel Eto'o, so prolific in Spain, has scored just three goals this season for Inter in Serie A.

This evening, in two great football cities of southern Europe, Samuel Eto'o will be the centre of attention. In the blue and black striped jersey of Inter Milan, he will, fitness and selection permitting, be seeking to consolidate the Italian champions' position at the top of Serie A, leading the forward line.

At about the same time in Spain, Eto'o will be speaking to television viewers about, among other things, the circumstances surrounding his summer departure from Barcelona. The broadcast interview, recorded last week, is said to have its fiery moments. The deal that brought Eto'o to Inter and took Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Barca in July was always likely to set up a long soap opera in its wake. Inter lost their leading forward, but gained financially and inherited a far more prolific goalscorer into the bargain. Or at least so the statistics showed.

Just more than two months into the season, the debate about which club did best remains lively, to say the least. Ibrahimovic has enhanced a reputation that had soared in Serie A but used to meet some scepticism outside Italy and his native Sweden, and has scored seven goals in his first seven matches in Spanish league football. Eto'o's initiation into the world of calcio carries less stunning figures. He has contributed three Inter goals in Serie A so far.

But the number that will grate with Eto'o, a competitive and proud footballer, is that he goes into tonight's fixture against Palermo without a goal in his past six matches, five of those in the shirt of his new club. By the high standards the Cameroonian has set, this counts as a drought. Scroll back over his career and in his five years at Barcelona he never went goalless for quite so long. In three of his five seasons at Barca, he scored 24, 26 and 30 league goals; in the others, he was absent for substantial periods with injury or on African Cup of Nations duty.

No one at Inter is yet suggesting there is a crisis at centre-forward for the champions, but it is noted that a high proportion of recent goals have come from midfield. Eto'o, industrious, full of running and often unselfish, can be credited with creating the space and, as in the win against Udinese earlier this month, providing the service for some of those goals. Eto'o might even claim to be the decisive influence in the bizarre goal by Al Sulley Muntari against Catania last weekend: Muntari's cross was aimed at Eto'o but sailed straight into the goal.

Yet with Diego Milito still missing with injury, there is sense that Inter's reshaped front line has not yet quite fired as their coach Jose Mourinho would quite like. Mario Balotelli has had his moments alongside Eto'o, but the maturity Mourinho wanted to see developing in the teenager is not always in evidence. And the biggest impact made by a newcomer to Inter has been that of Wesley Sneijder, whom injury might keep from tonight's contest.

As for Eto'o, he says that he is enjoying Inter. But it seems there is also some rancour left in him about how he left Barcelona. The transfer to Inter was controversial in as far as Eto'o had just spearheaded the Barca attack in a season when they won the league, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey. Club and player had contradictory accounts of how much they wanted Eto'o to stay, while Ibrahimovic began to lobby for a move to Catalonia from Inter.

During the interview, to be broadcast in Spain tonight, Eto'o will declare his disappointment in how Barcelona's president, Joan Laporta, and their head coach, Pep Guardiola, handled the affair. Meanwhile, his president at Inter, Massimo Moratti, has backed Eto'o strongly through his barren spell in front of goal. "Even the greatest players need time to adapt to a new team, to get used to the routines and the way a new coach works," said Moratti.

"And our league is a very tough one. Look at Diego at Juventus, who's an indisputably great talent. He's finding it tough at times." @Email:ihawkey@thenational.ae Inter v Palermo, KO 11.45pm, Aljazeera sport + 1