By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
Rafael Benitez has seen all this before, of course. His appointment as Chelsea manager in place of the hugely popular Champions League winner Roberto Di Matteo brings to mind memories of his last job, when he transformed Inter from European champions to kings of the world. But two trophies in six months were not enough to keep him employed, as a backdrop of discontent brought about a swift end to his time at San Siro.
Following Jose Mourinho was bound to be an unenviable task for any coach, but Benitez struggled from day one. He wore a huge smile at his opening press conference in June 2010, yet everyone else in the room appeared to be displaying nothing but frowns. Yes, it is fair to say there was scepticism from the off, with many immediately questioning the Nerazzurri’s decision to replace one of the most charismatic coaches in footballing folklore with a man seven days removed from having been ushered out of Liverpool for overseeing a drop from second to seventh in the previous 12 months.
It was not just the media who had doubts. Club president Massimo Moratti failed to be convinced by Benitez’s preferred transfer targets of Javier Mascherano and Dirk Kuyt, two players who had served him well at Anfield. Instead, the supremo told his new man he would have to largely make do with the squad that had earned the club’s first European title in 45 years. Only fringe players Jonathan Biabiany and Philippe Coutinho were added, leaving the Spaniard with a trophy-laden but ageing panel to choose from.
|BENITEZ'S RECORD AT INTER
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They were tiring too. After the exertions of a 57-game season in 2009-10, the majority of the Inter squad had also been involved in that summer’s World Cup in South Africa, meaning Benitez was greeted at his early training sessions by a reserve side, then eventually by players who had come off the most testing 12 months in their careers. It was hardly perfect preparation, nor was having to find himself a new desk at Appiano Gentile, with local legend suggesting he spent a short period working from what was little more than a broom cupboard after Mourinho had departed for Real Madrid with the key to the coach’s office.
The 52-year-old could have been forgiven for thinking the whole world was against him in those early days, but as time progressed he added to the list of reasons to harbour doubts. Marco Materazzi’s revelation this week that Benitez forced him to remove pictures from his locker of he and Mourinho celebrating Inter’s Champions League win in Madrid come as little surprise. Eager to rid himself of the Portuguese’s shadow, he appeared to want to change too much of what had been a winning formula, and the Materazzi episode suggests the Special One’s position as a club legend cut him deep.
Training patterns were also altered. Mourinho had been known for putting his players through rather light workouts when games were coming thick and fast, wary of the pitfalls of pushing his stars too hard. Benitez, conversely, wanted to get more from his men, with more intense physical sessions added to their schedules. That, added to a hectic calendar, resulted in a catalogue of muscular injuries which left the club on its knees, and by early December, with the Nerazzurri struggling in the league, they lost 3-1 to Lazio with Biabiany, Sulley Muntari, Luca Castellazzi and youngsters Felice Natalino and Denis Alibec all featuring where months before there had been Maicon, Samuel Eto’o, Diego Milito and Julio Cesar. It would be his last Serie A game in charge.
The Spaniard would later defend his injury record at Inter, claiming that training still involved 80 per cent ball work, but what he could not really talk his way out of was his record on the pitch. The Supercoppa Italiana and Club World Cup were added to the treble won the previous season to complete a five-star calendar year, but by the time they returned from the latter triumph in Abu Dhabi, Inter were eighth in Serie A and trailed leaders Milan by 13 points. They even went over two months without registering more than one goal in a league match.
|Benitez apparently spent a short period working from little more than a broom cupboard after Mourinho left with the keys to the coach's office
Suddenly, the Nerazzurri were directionless, shapeless and without any kind of leadership. They were dropping points and shipping goals to the likes of Lecce, Brescia, Chievo and Parma, and their crowning as world champions came after defeating the relative minnows of Seongnam Ilhwa and TP Mazembe.
After the final, Benitez issued an ultimatum to the club’s board which ended up being little more than the final nail in his own coffin. He said the club needed to bring in four or five players or risk continuing their bad run “without a project”, and that if they were not prepared to do something about arresting the slide then they should seek to end his contract.
Moratti - a man known for a quick trigger finger - chose the latter, firing the coach two days before Christmas and bringing in Leonardo, who immediately had the players on his side due to little more than the fact he was not Benitez. Notable squad members including Materazzi and Dejan Stankovic were quick to admit that they were happy ‘Rafa the Gaffer’ had been ousted, and the second half of the season saw a distinct improvement.
The Benitez experiment always felt like exactly that – an experiment. Of course, Inter have continued to struggle for the right formula in the two years since he departed, but the Spaniard gained few fans and countless detractors in his short spell in Lombardy. Now, with Chelsea fans quick to oppose his arrival at Stamford Bridge, Benitez has a real job on to rebuild a reputation which suffered significant damage during his brief foray to the Italian peninsula.