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It didn't take long for Massimo Moratti to eliminate all excuses surrounding Inter Milan. Given all the injuries suffered by the Nerazzurri, falling from their Serie A pedestal is explicable. But the troubles the five-time defending champions have had while healthy, the 13 point gap from the top that's created, the former manager's lack of accountability - Inter's problems have transcended fitness. Thus, Leonardo has been named Rafa Benítez's replacement, an obvious is head-shaking move.
Not that Leonardo doesn't fit with Inter. He clearly does, to the extent that it's hard to argue any other available coach would have been a better fit, but after 13 years on the red and black side of the San Siro, not even today's announcement can make the fit seem right. When he's on the sideline January 6, standing next to an eerily similar looking Javier Zanetti, the visage will seem like something from a video game. Ha! This game is crazy! Leonardo is managing Inter!
It's an appointment that became official Friday, with the Brazilian signed to guide Inter through next season. His start date is Sunday the 26th, giving him 10 days to prepare for his first match. Then, second place Napoli and their three match win streak go to the San Siro, and while that superficially sounds like a tough way to break his Nerazzurri bridle, the Azzurri could make for a perfect debut.
Napoli is one of six teams Inter has to pass if they're to retain their title. They're a surprise contender, one not used to going to the San Siro with expectations. Coming off a three match winning streak cooled by the winter break, Napoli could be the right combination credible opponent beatable side. Inter is still the more talented side, so defeating Napoli is well within their means. And if Leonardo can't deliver three in his debut? Benítez hang over.
Such is the situation Leonardo's thrust himself into, but coming off a season where he had to fill the shoes of Carlo Ancelotti, 41-year-old Brazilian's limited experience should serve him well. At Inter, Leonardo's not only following Benítez but he's dealing with expectations crafted by José Mourinho, and while he won't be expected to replicate The Special One's achievements, he will be expected to be much more José than Rafa. But is that more difficult that following in the shoes of Ancelotti last year, when Leonardo was appointed manager at Milan after Carlo left for Chelsea? Consider the Rossoneri had also sold Kaka to Real Madrid that summer, maintain Milan's standing near the top of Serie A seems a more difficult task than getting Inter back on track.
From Internazionale's point of view, it's hard to imagine a better candidate. Many will point to Leonardo's lack of experience, having only one year of experience managing. In that year, he guided Milan to third place, with the Rossoneri surprisingly challenging near the top of Serie A for much of the season. A long tenure as player, scout and coach means he knows the league as well as anybody, and if he can bring the same confident stability to Inter that he brought to Milan, a sixth straight title is not out of the question.
Most importantly for Inter, they've moved on. They used the winter break to quickly address the Benítez problem. Moratti had a man in mind, acted quickly, and now, within days of returning from Abu Dhabi, the club has a new focus. Whether Leonardo retains the scudetto, this is Inter putting their best foot forward, something they wouldn't be doing had they retained Benítez.
For the first time in his managerial career, Rafa Benítez is facing a step backwards, remarkable considering this is the second time in seven months he's been asked to leave a job. From Valencia to Liverpool to Inter Milan, Benítez had always managed to move on to the next big thing, but after a clear failure with the reigning European champions, the 50-year-old Spaniard's career is has to be reset. The next move for him may be humbling one, though it's unclear where the former Europe, Spain champion will land.
Despite that uncertainty, three SB Nation Soccer writers break out their crystal balls:
Jesse Chula - While rumors currently ping from one end of the Internet to the other, my money is planted firmly on the ace of spades that Rafa will return to England. No, not Liverpool. That would make about as much sense as Jose Mourinho heading back to Inter Milan or Roy Hodgson retreating back to Fulham - a sort of, 'everyone go back from whence you came' ideal that just wouldn't work. So as the top teams in the Premier League are comfy with current managers, Rafa's most likely to undertake a mid-table or Blackburn-type job in hopes he can rebuild a once top of the table club (Blackburn themselves) into just that again. Little known fact of the day: Blackburn recently fired Sam Allardyce and have only appointed Steve Kean as caretaker manager seemingly waiting for a big name manager to become available.
After all, Benitez was most successful in England. The pudgy one lifted the European Cup, the FA Cup, the League Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and came ever so close to winning the league with Liverpool during his six year stint in Old Blighty. If Benitez wants a quick return to the insanity of life as a football manager, more specifically, a Premier League manager, Blackburn Rovers, with their new, ambitious owners might just fit the bill. However, keep a watchful eye on Alan Pardew up North. If Pardew fails quickly at Newcastle United, with their massive support and big club mentality, Benitez might fancy the nearly impossibly feat of pleasing a nation of Geordies.
Kevin McCauley - At this point in his career, Rafa still has some options, despite the incredible damage that has been done to his reputation. One of those options is to go the route of Juande Ramos or Eric Gerets and chase the money, moving to Russia or the Middle East. If Rafa's sick of high pressure jobs with the European media breathing down his neck and he just wants to take care of his family, it's not a bad option. The opposite option is to take the first job he gets offered in the English Premier League, regardless of the team's current stature. Can you imagine what would happen if Benitez took the Blackburn job? If Rafa actually enjoys the media attention in England, he will probably have some options. The final option is to do what's best for football reasons and wait for a good job in Spain to open up. Quique Sanchez Flores is probably on his last legs at Atletico Madrid if things don't improve swiftly right after the winter break, and despite just hiring Gregorio Manzano, Sevilla can't be too enamored with the results. Chances are, one of those two jobs will be available by June. Both would be excellent fits for Benitez.
Right now, Rafa is getting a pretty sick paycheck from two teams to do absolutely nothing, so I don't see why there's any incentive for him to do a Gerets, unless he's got MC Hammer-esque taste. I also think that he's got too much pride to take over a team of Blackburn's stature. Therefore, I think the most likely scenario is that Rafa sits on a beach with a beer and his cell phone on, waiting for the call from Atleti or Sevilla. If he manages to get fired from one of those jobs in less than a year, maybe the career of Rafa Benitez as a top European club manager will finally be over.
Richard Farley - Not to contradict my own opening, but is it possible that Rafa doesn't see the need to reassess his career? Remember the defiance with which he spoke from the dais in Abu Dhabi. This man either legitimately believes he was making progress with Inter or feels undermined. Regardless, he doesn't seem to think Inter's drop in Serie A was his doing.
Think about how hard your head has to be to believe that. While I'm sure some of that blind allegiance to self is what's enabled Benítez to become a successful manager, it's also the type of approach that will lead him to sit back and wait for another big club to come knocking. He'll sit in his house in Liverpool, take a vacation in Portugal, spend some time in the States, all along thinking Chelsea's not doing so well. They'll call. Bayern hate Van Gaal. What about a Spaniard in Munich? And if Mourinho doesn't win Spain this year? Yes, Benítez is that special kind of delusional that would want to try and follow in Mourinho's footsteps. Again.
Once Benítez finishes his football sojourn. I see a television studio. I see punditry, at least in the short term, something that will allow him to second-guess and look erudite. It will also allow him to rebuild his image. When people constantly see him in a new role, allowing them to dissociate Benítez from his Inter failing, it will be much easier to remember he won Europe - that he was the last man to lead a team outside Los Dos to win Spain.
Atlético makes the most sense, and you can almost picture Benítez in Seville. But I can also see him behind a desk, comically trying to act casual, waiting to tell Spanish television viewers how many ways Mourinho's screwing up. His tie uncomfortably, intentionally off to the side, tucked inside his jacket. A thin layer of flop sweat glistening his brow. Maybe this is more Sky than Spanish television - whatever. I just want to see it!
And after six months, perhaps a year of doing that, Benítez will either have his big job or be willing to swallow his pride.
Now that Massimo Moratti and Inter can close the book on the Rafa Benítez era - and take said book and throw it in the incinerator - the club can move on to finding a successor. The Nerazzurri have two weeks before their next match, and with a sixth consecutive title still a glimmer in their eye, Moratti can't afford to "Benítez" this one. The team is 13 points back of Milan, but with two matches in hand and the ability to convince themselves the deficit is really seven, Inter is right to retain hopes of adding to their scudetti. Besides, there's always hope Antonio Cassano will destroy Milan from the inside.
But staying on their side of town, Inter will have no shortage of candidates. Even a jaundiced eye would have trouble casting Internazionale's job outside the world's elite positions, meaning every manager with some name value will spend their Christmas doodling formations on the back of shredded wrapping paper. And if he asks, I'll say the club should do this, and Moratti will say "That's brilliant! I never thought of that!"
But unfortunately for most aspirants, there is one person who would be a perfect fit:
Leonardo - You would hear the grumbling from Milanistas as their former player, coach moved to the black and blue, but they'd have nobody to blame but Silvio Berlusconi (and it's not like they're unaccustomed to doing that). Conflicts between the owner and coach seemed to hasten Leonardo's departure one year after the Brazilian calmly and confidently filled Carlo Ancelotti's shoes. Those qualities would be perfect for Inter come January 6. Likely to instill a system the fits with the club's personnel, Leonardo is clearly the best candidate.
Luciano Spalletti - The best manager on this list, bar none, but also very much employed. Working in St. Petersburg with Zenit, he is probably making more from Gasprom than Moratti's willing to pay. In addition, Spalletti could bring a drastic change. His Roma teams had concentrated their strength in a deep and diverse midfield, one which Spalletti tweaked slightly from opponent to opponent, relying on the greatness of Francesco Totti to be the force in the final third. He's carried that idea to Zenit, but Inter's squad does not lend itself to that approach. Either he or the squad would have to change, both options breeding unnecessary uncertainty.
Walter Zenga - The legendary Inter `keeper has been in the managerial seat since 1999, never staying in one place for more than two seasons. Last year he guided Palermo to a surprise fifth place finish only to leave the Barbera for a Saudi pay day. Sixteen matches into his Riyadh sojourn, Zenga's ready to return, though you can't blame him for this new, if abrupt, change of heart. This is arguably his dream job, though it's coming at the wrong time. Zenga would have been the guy to step in after Mourinho, bringing a sense of history to a team trying to move out of the shadow of the Special One. Now, Inter needs stability. Having coached 11 clubs in as many years, Zenga does not bring that.
Frank Rijkaard - This seems like the place you go if Leonardo doesn't want the job: A better player and possibly a better coach, a consolation made only because the man won Europe with Barcelona five years ago. He eventually made way for Pep Guardiola, went to Istanbul and had a failed run with Galatasaray. Back in a familiar city, with a talented team and still carrying the luster of his Milan/Oranje playing days, Rijkaard could bring the same confidence and direction Inter would be hoping for from Leonardo. Of course, he could have also be done as a coach, not knowing how to recover after his departure from the Nou Camp. More experience, more accomplishments, but also more risk.
Other candidates, as compiled by Reuters (and distributed at FourFourTwo): Diego Simeone, Fabio Capello, Giovanni Trapattoni, Luis Figo, Beppe Baresi, Pep Guardiola. Let's start knocking these out. Figo's lack of experience makes him somebody you'd hire at the beginning of a season or out of desperation, neither of which apply to Inter. Simeone's had success in Argentina but has never managed outside their Primera. Capello and Trapattoni are both at the stage of their careers (and lives) where international managing's a better fit. Baresi makes sense as a safe, if back-up, option, while there's no way in hell Guardiola leaves Barcelona in the middle of a season.
Benítez must have wanted out of Inter Milan as much as the club wanted him to leave. Either that or he got a great settlement offer from the club, because the fight over how much of his remaining contract would be paid was relatively short. One day after the soccer world turned abuzz with news of the former Liverpool manager's departure, Benítez is now (officially) a former Internazionale manager, having come to an accord with the world champions.
The announcement, released earlier today on the club's web site, is three sentences: one announcing, one thanking, and another .... thanking?
MILAN - F.C. Internazionale and Rafael Benitez wish to convey that, together and with mutual satisfaction, they have reached an agreement for the early cancellation of their working partnership.
F.C. Internazionale would like to thank Rafael Benitez for his work in charge of the team, which he guided to success in the Italian League Super Cup and in the FIFA Club World Cup.
Rafael Benitez would like to thank F.C. Internazionale for the important professional experience and for the victories achieved together.
Even by mealy-mouthed business standards, this is an uncommonly affable statement. It's as if Massimo Moratti randomly iChat'd Benítez late last night, stared blankly at him in the moments after the Spaniard's face appeared, and waited. Then, both spontaneously, simultaneously blurted: "I can't do this!"
Within minutes they'd agreed to split the difference. "Maybe we can do lunch, when I come back." Benítez offered. Sure, Moratti thought, though he knew. There was no going back from this. Too much, too soon. They never should have in the first place. It was just never going to work.
And if this all sounds a bit over-dramatic, consider the rumor that Benítez is in Liverpool right now. Although Roy Hodgson was quoted yesterday as not being bothered that his predecessor was back on Merseyside, how would you feel if your girlfriend's ex kept hanging around her apartment?
Though we shift from jaw-clenched tango to iron-backed waltz, the dance surrounding Rafa Benítez's pending sacking remains rigid, procedural, and on the precipice of absurdity. We seeing the interaction between two impending divorcées trying to bait the other into filing first. In this marriage, if Rafa leaves, Inter doesn't owe have to pay in the settlement, but if Benítez can get through a few more fights - a couple of more days of feelings like a stranger in his own home - he gets his money. And yes, it all comes down to money, with the two sides now presumably negotiating the buy-out.
According to the AFP (in a piece reprinted by Yahoo!), Inter has given Benítez a hint of exploring another option. Amidst rumors that Inter has already sacked Benítez with an email notification more plausibly, more concrete - the club informing their manager that he's failed to do his job. Call it a warning shot.
Inter president Massimo Moratti was reported to be furious over the remarks and wanted to fire Benitez even though the dismissal of the former Liverpool boss, who took over from Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho, could cost the club between four and eight million euros.
The Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper said that Inter had written to Benitez upbraiding him for his outburst and accusing the Spaniard of failing to meet his responsibilties as a coach possibly opening the door to a reduced compensation payment.
The warning: You can either leave or be shown the door, but know that if we have to do that "thing" we're willing to do, you're gonna get nothing. Right now, it's Christmas, and we're in the giving mood, but if you test us - if you draw this out closer to New Year's - we're not going to feel so festive, Mr. Sitting Seventh And Berating The Club From His Abu Dhabi Podium (which, by the way, is very difficult to fit on your business cards).
More rumors flying around: Benítez is back on Merseyside today. Why? Possibly just enjoying his winter break, though the sect of Liverpool fans that shed a tear at his departure are connected imaginary dots with invisible ink: Rafa could be coming back home.
Now 7p.m. in Milan, nothing else is expected out of Inter today, but with a long winter break ahead, neither side he significant incentive to compromise their position until Benítez is back in Milan. But when Benítez does return to Inter, he may find a dapper Brazilian reclined in chair. Olá, Rafa!
While we've already written Rafa Benítez's obituary, it's important to note that he is still the manager at Inter Milan. If reports are to be believed, that will persist until compensation is agreed. In the interim, rumors persist regard what, exactly has happened with the job, stories which range from Benítez being fired via email, the Spaniard going AWOL - none of which was cleared-up by a piece released on the club web site moments ago.
Between the lines on president Massimo Moratti's comments, which the club is curiously willing to publicize. Inter can't say Benítez is fired before an agreement is reached, else they would likely (legally) be obligated to compensate Benítez for the entire amount due the coach on this contract. Their best case scenario is to have Benítez agree to a reduced package to be able to walk away and find another job as soon as possible. If they can use Benítez not returning to the team as leverage, so be it.
Here are Moratti's full comments:
Mr president, we were wondering who you were going to lunch with?
"Don't worry. I'm going home."
Therefore we shouldn't expect Benitez's sacking today?
"Nothing should be expected. I swear to you I have not had the means to speak to anyone."
Is it true Inter are working to rescind Benitez's contract?
"No. We are trying to understand some things. This situation is a bit tricky. What happened was quite surprising. It is clear therefore, that we are looking at it from every angle."
So today, Benitez is still the Inter coach?
"As long as he is there..."
If you want to follow the saga, just search "Benítez" on Twitter, though given Moratti's comments, this saga may take time to play out. Inter is still two-and-a-half weeks away from their next match, and while you would think they have an incentive to affect this change as soon as possible, the president is posturing. This particular posture hints Inter may be inducing Benítez to act.
Rafa Benítez has been fired at Inter Milan, ending his six-month tenure with the world champions. According to various reports (this one being from The Guardian), a formal announcement will come in the next 24 hours. Benítez has already been informed his contract is being terminated, though club and former manager are still negotiating compensation.
If there is a strange part about a firing that was so expected, its the irony of circumstance. Internazionale is four days off from winning the Club World Cup, posting a 3-0 victory in the final over Congo's TP Mazembe in Abu Dhabi. The accomplishment was not enough to overshadow disappointing league results, with the five-time reigning Serie A champions sitting seventh in league, a fact that understates Benítez's failures.
Internazionale are 13 points behind rival Milan. Coming off a season that say the Nerazzurri win league, cup and European titles, the gap makes depths to which Inter have fallen astounding. Not only did Benítez fail to escape José Mourinho's shadow, he dug a trench, forged a bunker in it.
Perhaps it's mere coincidence, but seventh is where Benítez finished last season with Liverpool, a result that saw his contract bought out. While at Anfield, Benítez won one European title as well as an FA Cup, but when four years without trophies culminated in missing Champions League, Benítez left the Reds, making his departure from Milano his second dismissal in seven months.
The decision of club president Massimo Moratti comes after an embattled Benítez used his post-Mazembe press conference to issue an ultimatum, one which included bizarre insinuations that Inter lacked both talent and a plan to move forward:
"One, 100 per cent support for the coach and buy four or five players to build a stronger team with competition among the players to be able to carry on winning matches and trophies.
"Two, carry on like this without a project, without planning, and go ahead with one person to blame for the whole season getting to May this way.
"The third is to speak to my agent and reach an agreement if there is not this support. Simple."
Not surprisingly, the club has chosen the third option, something many suspect Benítez wanted. It's the ultimate defense mechanism. You're going to fire me? Me? How do you say triple dog dare in Italian?
This way, Benítez can go out on top, defiantly, with an empty claim of having won a world title. He can look back on a fall full of injuries and excuse his performance. And, of course, the club gets what it wants, what it was going to seek regardless of empty ultimatums and trophy-wagging tirades. Inter get chance to salvage their season.
While Benítez's departure from Anfield made him the obvious choice at the San Siro, it was always a strange connection. Benítez had not only been a disappointment in his last season with Liverpool, he had also proven easily distracted: Bogged down by problems with ownership, seemingly obsessed with others' perceptions. Following in the footsteps of Mourinho, Benítez was never had the humility to do the obvious: keep the European Champions on course. Instead, Benítez's judgment led him to subtle changes, most notably unsettling Diego Milito.
While Benítez has one European and two domestic titles to his credit, he is also without a job, with two names prominently mentioned as his successor. Former Roma manager Luciano Spalletti is coming off a title with Zenit St. Petersburg, though his acquisition seems unlikely (if for no other reason than his denials). More likely, former Milan boss Leonardo, six months removed from having left the Rossoneri, is the likely hire, with the system he played last year fitting well with the Nerazzurri's personnel.
And when Benítez's replacement is confirmed, Inter can turn their backs on this unfortunate period. While few will remember the second half of 2010 as a particularly down point in Internazionale's history, there is always something sad about seeing the premature end of an era. And when you look at Inter's talent, this ending would be premature. The Nerazzurri still have the best squad in the league, making Benítez's dismissal almost obligatory. There is little explanation beyond coaching failure to describe why the five-time champions - coming off a European title - have allowed themselves to be caught by the league. While Milan, Juventus and Roma all stocked-up this summer, they didn't stock-up to the extent that Inter should be 13 points off the pace at break.
But there was a sense of inevitability to it all. When Benítez became available this summer, we knew he was going to Inter. In hindsight, we could say that Guus Hiddink or Fabio Capello were preferred candidates, but there was never a sense that either would be moving to Milano. And Massimo Moratti wasn't going to replace José Mourinho with some relatively anonymous man. Benítez had a European title on his resumé. He was the last man to win Spain with a non-Madrid, non-Barcelona club. The hiring was, on paper, justifiable.
But the reliance on that justification is what made this fit so wrong. When Moratti hired José Mourinho, he had fired Roberto Mancini to do it - a man who was coming off multiple title winning seasons. It was an aggressive, ambitious move. In contrast, the Benítez hire was made out of preservation and fear. Instead of being aggressive and going to find the best man to replace Mourinho, Moratti let Benítez fall into his lap. Unfortunately, the same complacency with which Moratti hired Mourinho's replacement permeated to the pitch. By the time the need for a correction was acted upon, Inter was 13 points back.
I don't think Inter's so far behind that they can't find their sixth straight scudetto; however, it's clearly a long shot. They have two matches in hand - six points which could bring them even with Roma. From that perspective, a run toward the title is more unlikely than remarkable. But the key is finding the right fit. Getting Spalletti would be a coup, but even the positive focus of Leonardo should be enough to right the course. Whether Moratti's made the change in time remains to be seen, but it's difficult to argue he could have waited any longer.
It's hindsight, but it's still relevant: The last thing Inter needed was a coach with a chip on his shoulder. As much as Benítez wanted Inter to win, he seemed to have other things on his mind. He wanted to show that Liverpool wasn't his fault. He wanted to show he could win Italy on his own terms (not his predecessor's). He wanted to show he wasn't Mourinho, and while winning was consistent with all those goals, those goals were also a formula for failure.
It was a terrible fit when the prevailing maxim should have been "if it's not broken, don't fix it." Well, now it's broken. Moratti had to fix it.
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