Less noise, more football: Benitez's plan to outdo Jose
The form of Eto'o means Rafa has already got one over on Mourinho and he is promising all-out attack. But with Tottenham on the horizon, don't be surprised if and when he reverts to type, writes Pete Jenson.
Sunday 17 October 2010
How does that old Four Tops record go again? "It's the same old song, but with a different feeling since you've been gone." Six games into a new season, Rafa Benitez is trying to get his Internazionale side to dance to a new tune – one that won't remind everyone of Jose Mourinho.
He takes his side to Cagliari today in the midst of a midfield crisis. He may have to play versatile full-back Javier Zanetti alongside the last fit specialist midfielder Dejan Stankovic because Esteban Cambiasso is injured and Thiago Motta doutbful. Diego Milito is out and unhappy after being pushed out wide to accommodate Samuel Eto'o at centre-forward. Oh, and Harry Redknapp's Tottenham are on the horizon. Yet still the former Liverpool manager's biggest headache is the Treble-winning manager he replaced two months ago. "I know comparisons [with Mourinho] are inevitable but I can make improvements in terms of the way we play," Benitez said at the start of the season. "I want to build something concrete and leave a solid base for the future."
Hitting on two of Mourinho's weak points was a clever way of strengthening his position. It was not always pretty last season while Inter were making history and the legacy, despite the outgoing coach's theory that he always leaves a lasting one, is heavy on veterans who have nothing left to win.
Benitez is promising to win just as much but with better football and a team that will last long into the future. It is hard to argue that he had done either at Anfield but something had to be said as he sat in the Special One's chair for the first time.
The jury remains out on whether he is succeeding. Tottenham's go-for-it approach will be a test for the Spaniard who, as hard as he tries, can't help erring on the side of caution.
Trying to find the middle ground between conceding that project Mourinho is best left untouched, and taking a sledgehammer to the most successful side in Inter's history, he wants an Inter team that will have greater possession of the ball.
The statistics from the Champions' League semi-final second leg against Barcelona last season were an astonishing 24 per cent, 76 per cent split in the defeated team's favour. Things were not that different in the final when, without the excuse of having a man less, Inter still allowed Bayern Munich a 60-40 share of the ball.
Benitez has never been too concerned with possession percentages, and has never looked like wavering from a 4-2-3-1 formation that made his Liverpool strong, before making them predictable. Yet he has promised to play a more attacking 4-3-3 at times this season and suggested that Cambiasso could be shifted forward and allowed to dictate the play more.
But old habits die hard and in Inter's first league defeat of the season away to Roma he took off Milito to send on midfield grafter Sulley Muntari. His opposite number, Claudio Ranieri, went for the win by throwing on Montenegro forward Mirko Vucinic, who grabbed the winner in injury time.
Inter recovered well from that setback and the superb form of Eto'o has had a lot to do with that – something Benitez can take full credit for. Last season Eto'o sacrificed himself out wide to allow Milito to play centre-forward. He ended up playing at full-back in the Champions' League semi-final against Barcelona after Inter went down to 10 men. Now he is back where he believes he should be, and 11 goals in 10 games in all competitions has repaid Benitez's faith.
The goals will need to keep coming. Eto'o has taken the place of a man whose two goals to earn Inter their first Champions' League in 45 years elevated him to god-like status among fans. He has returned from the World Cup looking jaded and has been slowed down by niggling injuries but he will soon want his old job back.
Milito's agent has already sought to clarify his player's position amid speculation that he could leave in January. If he does, it will be Benitez's decision alone. It was different with Mario Balotelli; Benitez did not want to be the man responsible for selling Balotelli just in case he was an instant success at Manchester City. The buck was neatly passed to the board courtesy of an offer too good to turn down.
Eto'o's defensive work must be replaced. Last season his tracking back eased the workload on an ageing defence and left-back Cristian Chivu is already missing him, overheard shouting "If [the forwards] won't run, I'm leaving" against Roma.
For now, Eto'o's form is one over on Mourinho. Wasn't it sacrilege to leave such a great strikers toiling on the touchline? "I want him playing further up the pitch with less ground to cover defensively," Benitez says.
Well aware that Mourinho upset so many of his managerial rivals last season, Benitez has also said: "My approach is one of dialogue and respect, above all for the other coaches."
He tells a story of how he developed as a coach. "When I was in the Real Madrid C team as a central midfielder," he recalls, "I always had a lot to say on the pitch. My father used to say 'speak less and score more goals'."
That just about sums up how he intends to outdo Mourinho – less noise, more football. Tottenham on Wednesday will be a big test but, with Eto'o's goals, a Wembley date next May is the long-term target.
Another European Cup in his first season at a new club: that is something Mourinho cannot match.
Internazionale v Tottenham is live on ITV1 from 7.30pm on Wednesday
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