Benitez And His Poisoned Chalice At Inter

On the face of it, the Inter Milan  manager's job should be the easiest in football. The club are so far ahead of the competition in Italy that winning Serie A appears to be a mere formality. Rafael Benitez, impatient for the league title which eluded him in his six-year spell at Liverpool, could have been forgiven for feeling that the long wait was over when he got the call to manage Inter Milan. Ever since the Serie A competition was virtually demolished by the 2006 match-fixing scandal, Inter Milan have had a stranglehold on Italian football which they have shown no sign of relinquishing. Their 2005/06 Scudetto might have been won in the courtroom, but the following four were all won emphatically on the pitch.

Jose Mourinho took the club to the next level last season, winning an unprecedented treble. It was the culmination of years of what some would describe as reckless investment by chairman Massimo Moratti. Such has been Moratti's ambition and his determination to see the club at the peak of European, as well as Italian, football that he has overseen and underwritten a financial loss of epic proportions. The situation could not last. No company, no matter how ostentatiously successful, can afford to lose money perpetually. There are regulatory, as well as financial, clouds on the horizon for big spending sides like Inter Milan. Financial fair play regulations will require clubs to break even by 2013 or risk facing serious sanctions.

With the three pieces of significant silverware that Mourinho's men acquired last season already on the mantelpiece, Moratti appears to have decided that now is the time to tighten the purse strings.Last pre-season Mourinho was able to add Samuel Eto'o, Diego Milito, Lucio, and Wesley Sneijder to his Serie A-winning side. This expenditure was partly offset by the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Benitez has not been able to strengthen the existing squad to anything like the same extent. If anything, it has been depleted by the departures of Mario Balotelli, who has joined the Manchester City revolution, and Nicolas Burdisso, who has made last season's loan move to Roma permanent. By contrast, there has not been a single significant arrival at Inter Milan since Benitez took charge.

Mourinho's legacy is a millstone which will hang heavy around the neck of his successor this season. Any success Benitez enjoys will be with the team which Mourinho built and as such is unlikely to bring the Spaniard many accolades. Any failure, by contrast, will be seized upon as evidence of his incompetence. The question on his critic's lips will inevitably be, "If Mourinho can win the treble with these players, then why can't Benitez?" Such an argument is oversimplistic. The standard in European football is so high that it is virtually impossible for a team to win the Champions League in successive seasons. If Benitez were to emulate Mourinho and actually win another treble, it would be a truly extraordinary achievement, but if he fails to match last season's haul, he is likely to be compared unfavourably to the Portuguese tactician.

Key players such as Esteban Cambiasso, Diego Milito, Javier Zanetti, Lucio, Walter Samuel, and Javier Zanetti are all on the wrong side of thirties. This experience was essential to last year's success, but with the World Cup coming at the end of a hectic domestic season, Benitez would probably like to have reinforced the squad with some slightly younger legs. Inter Milan's new-found profligacy has also coincided with some serious investment by their Serie A rivals. Juventus have gone for broke in acquiring almost an entire new team, while local rivals AC Milan have signed two of the most outstanding attacking players in the world in Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Benitez's task is actually far greater than the one which faced his illustrious predecessor 12 months ago. Mourinho has increased expectations exponentially by winning the treble while Moratti has reduced resources significantly as he looks to secure the financial future of the club. Being appointed as manager of a club with a recent history of success can be a mixed blessing. Benitez is fortunate to have at his disposal a tried and tested team consisting almost entirely of world-class players in their prime. The expectation levels which accompany this particular group of players are so intense, though, this particular inheritance could turn out to be something of a curse.

The question for Benitez will be one of criteria. If his team is to be measured merely against the others in Italy and Europe, then the Spaniard has every chance of enjoying success. If the comparisons to Mourinho's treble-winning side continue throughout the season, Benitez's prospects in Italy look decidedly bleak. Mourinho recently announced that he was no magician but Benitez will need to work miracles if he is to follow in his footsteps.

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