By Kris Voakes at the Stadio Olimpico
It was all so poetic in the end. Just three weeks ago, hordes of AC Milan supporters travelled down to Rome, saw their team clinch the Scudetto, and celebrated by joining one of their heroes in likening former coach Leonardo to something you might step on in the street. Last night, the Brazilian rocked up to the exact same ground and soon after full-time was being held aloft by his Inter players with the Coppa Italia in his hands, all in front of the very same section from where Gattuso et al took his name in vain.
His first success as a tactician was always going to taste sweet, but the irony within the sub-text was not lost as the Nerazzurri celebrated their 3-1 cup final win against Palermo at the Olimpico. After their neighbours’ league win, they needed a quick response, and Leo needed his own bragging rights after Gattuso’s headline-making chant.
|ROUND-BY-ROUND | Inter's Coppa triumph
It’s true that Inter were not at their best – nowhere near it in fact. The Sicilians thrilled their 40,000-strong travelling support by making several good chances, but frustrated them in equal measure through their inability to be more clinical in front of goal. The finisher’s instinct the Rosanero missed was personified by Samuel Eto’o, who netted either side of half-time to make them pay for their profligacy.
Few would have denied him his moment, either, had his late effort back off the bar found the net instead, to give him a 38th goal for the season and send him level with Antonio Angelillo and Giuseppe Meazza as Inter’s greatest scorer in a single campaign. But, as he rightly said afterwards, records are nice, but trophies are better.
Just ask Leonardo. After his arrival at Pinetina in December, the Nerazzurri were Serie A’s most successful team in terms of points gained, but it won them nothing. The disadvantage cultivated in the Rafael Benitez days proved far too large a hurdle for them to overcome, but the Brazilian will take the Coppa Italia as a decent first step.
He probably would have been allowed another season in charge by Massimo Moratti regardless of the result at the Olimpico, but now it’s a certainty. There are still questions to be asked, though. With three defeats out of four in Europe and a poor record against the challengers in the league, he still needs to prove he can direct a side effectively for the big matches. Last night’s triumph is a good start, but – with all due respect – it was achieved against a side that had not reached this showpiece occasion in 32 years and whom still have never won a major trophy.
But what Leonardo lacks in tactical instruction he makes up for in charisma. The scene at the end where he was tossed high into the air by his squad members is something you’d never have seen afforded Benitez. The camaraderie he once had at Milanello has been more than replicated across the city, and it is that which may help to keep this squad together for another crack at the Scudetto before change is necessary on the pitch. With a rare period of rest ahead for his squad – the Copa America notwithstanding - there’s a good chance they can emerge strong again next term.
Milan may well have won the battle, but the war is still to be played out. There is certainly no love lost between Leonardo and his old club, but he has now delivered a first trophy for his new beau. And with his duck having been broken, the Inter coach will get a longer run-up next term as he looks to knock his former side off their perch and make the Nerazzurri champions of Italy once more.