Being the man to replace Jose Mourinho is an unenviable task- just ask Gigi Del Neri. The current Juventus manager lasted just 15 days as Jose’s successor at then newly-crowned European champions Porto before being issued a one-way ticket back to Italia.
And so the choice of who would inherit the Madrid-bound maestro’s treble-winning team must have been made with slight trepidation by Inter President Massimo Moratti. Following an unsuccessful attempt to lure Fabio Capello from his role as England manager, the challenge was set to assiduous Spanish tactician Rafa Benitez. Fresh from an acrimonious split from Liverpool following a dismal seventh place finish and failure to qualify for the Champions League, many an eyebrow was raised as to whether he could extend Inter’s run of five consecutive scudetti.
Personally, my concerns were not with Rafa’s tactical prowess or his ability to manage players of the calibre of Samuel Eto’o, Maicon and Wesley Sneijder, but with his activities in the transfer market. Over a six year reign at Liverpool, Rafa notched up a total of 91 signings. While the acquisitions of Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Jose Reina and Javier Mascherano were unquestionably successful, the list of flops, including Antonio Nunez, Jan Kromkamp and Antonio Barragan, raises doubts over his eye for new talent.
Perhaps due to the different structure within Inter, where former Nerazurri striker Marco Branca directs the club’s transfer policy, or a satisfaction with the squad list he inherited from his predecessor, Rafa failed to strengthen the squad for the 2010-11 season (other than the return of Jonathan Biabiany from his loan at Parma and arrival of Brazilian trequartista Coutinho, a transfer agreed over a year ago). This has come back to bite Rafa. Big time.
Currently lying sixth in Serie A, Rafa’s depleted squad is due to receive a further blow with the imminent suspension of star striker Sammy Eto’o following his Materazzi-esque headbutt during the 2-1 defeat to the mussi volanti of Chievo Verona. With neighbours AC Milan in rude form following last week’s Derby della Madonnina victory and much-maligned Swedish toss-pot Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return to form, the knives must surely be out for Señor Benitez.
In my opinion, Rafa deserves more time. He has proved himself as a member of Europe’s managing elite with a La Liga and UEFA Cup double at Valencia before Liverpool’s incredible Champions League comeback in Istanbul. While many of his critics would attribute that historic victory to AC Milan’s astonishing capitulation, let us not forget that Liverpool beat Chelsea and Juventus en route to the final. His tactical vision and his ability to earn the respect of his players (his ability to convince Steven Gerrard to remain at Liverpool deserves special praise) will no doubt surface as the season progresses, assuming of course he has the time to turn things around.
With former Inter portiere Walter Zenga linked to the hot seat, the Inter hierarchy has a bold decision to make. Wednesday night’s Champions League match with FC Twente could provide just the opportunity for Rafa’s side to regain form. Or else it could be the match that seals his fate.