Serie A fans recently saw the publication of the first Italian biography of Rafa Benitez. It’s a book telling the tale of an engagingly modest public figure; a man who rarely raises his voice and a talented manager who can coax the best out of slightly average players.
Simply Rafa took its place in bookshops alongside a raft of bestselling tomes dedicated to Benitez’s predecessor, the treble-winning Jose Mourinho. It will have to jostle for shelf space with the likes of The Gospel According to Mourinho, Jose Mourinho: Born to Win, Mourinho: The Thoughts and Words of a Very Special Coach and, most recently, The Alien Mourinho, a great read referencing everyone from Genghis Khan to Stanley Kubrick and including an afterword by Irvine Welsh, who writes of the Special One being a “gigantic enigma”.
This hasn’t been an easy few months for the Spaniard. His Inter team have been struggling to find any sort of consistency, any rhythm or spirit. They’ve frequently looked lethargic; they’ve often looked (and proven) beatable.
Inter owner Massimo Moratti spoke this week of wanting too see his nerazzurri side playing with “rage”, to see them regain that strutting superiority and sense of urgency which characterised their domestic and European successes in recent years. Moratti stopped short of referring to Mourinho, but the inference was clearly there.
Benitez enjoyed a decent honeymoon period with the Italian media, who were initially relieved at no longer having to endure press conferences which were more akin to wars of attrition. The former Liverpool boss speaks fluent Italian, knows the Serie A scene well and was keen to show his affable, self-effacing side in front of the cameras.
With Inter reluctant to make any wholesale changes to the playing staff (despite cashing-in on Mario Balotelli), Benitez has altered both tactics and preparation. The emphasis is back on possession (something Mourinho sniffily dismissed as mere statistics), on a high defensive line and, most crucially, on gym work.
The fact is Inter players are bored. Rightly or wrongly, every day under Mourinho was an event.
The Inter injury list has been a real source of concern. Since the season began, 21 players have been sidelined at one time or another, most of them suffering from muscular problems. It hasn’t just been the old guard struggling with aging limbs either. Younger players like the teenage Brazilian Coutinho have been in the treatment room, while Wesley Sneijder has looked absolutely knackered.
Benitez sets his teams out to play in a tighter space, to be more rigid. It puts a greater strain on muscles already at breaking point. It’s also very limiting and frustrating for the players involved.
Samuel Eto’o’s goals have deflected attention from all this. The Cameroonian has bailed out Benitez on a number of occasions, but now even he’s showing signs of discontentment. Caught on camera head-butting an opponent during the weekend’s defeat at Chievo, he’s banned for the next three games.
The press were quick to pick up on Eto’o’s misdemeanours as proof that things were going seriously wrong, but more telling was the body language (if not the actual mindset) of club captain Javier Zanetti who, in the same game, looked completely bereft of ideas and direction.
The fact is Inter players are bored. Rightly or wrongly, every day under Mourinho was an event. That “rage” Moratti spoke of was part of the team’s DNA; fed by a feeling of the coach and players against the world. Benitez’s Inter now have the appearance of men who have been seduced and abandoned by Monica Bellucci; left to stumble around in a passionless void.
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