Gregory Sica
Tuesday March 27th, 2007

Are the world champions a one-hit wonder?

Sport Club Internacional was the story of 2006, surprising everyone by winning the Copa Libertadores for the club's first-ever major international title. The Brazilian club then went on to shock Barcelona in Japan at the Club World Cup in December.

Now? Barely seven months after its first big triumph, Inter may not even make it out of the first round in its defense of the South American crown.

After a huge breakout, this year could be tragic for the club. Despite a positive influx of talent in the squad, its latest Libertadores campaign has been a nightmare.

The reigning champs have reason to expect the worst -- if they don't reverse the situation immediately, they could already be on their way out.

With only three points through nine matches, Inter's morale is at its lowest point, especially with two heavy defeats. Unless there is an immediate change in attitude from the players, they can look forward to being the laughing stock of the continent, as the likes of Santos, Boca Juniors, Libertad and Flamengo look to consolidate themselves in the competition.

The funny thing is, it isn't as if Abel Braga's side is playing that badly. The main reason they're in such a deep hole has less to do with them -- it's because so many of the other clubs have gotten stronger. Almost two months in, we've been treated to some of the best soccer the Copa Libertadores has had to offer in recent years.

Still, the Brazilians from Porto Alegre have been heavily criticized for their lack of creativity, especially in the midfield. They've also been slow and predictable, and highly rated attacking players Iarley and Fernandão don't seem to have woken up yet. Apart from teenage sensation Alexandre Pato, who led Inter to a 3-0 win against Emelec, the side has looked sluggish.

The reason? They entered the field with salto alto, commonly used slang for "overconfidence." After making history last season, the club has gone off the roof with its celebrations, to the degree that its preseason work got off to a late start and the team lost ground on its competition.

Much like the Brazilian national team in last year's World Cup, Inter came into the Libertadores thinking it would breeze through its supposedly inferior group opponents and would then begin thinking about defending its own crown. But it doesn't work that way. Inter was placed in the most evenly matched group of an increasingly tough competition, and should've been in fifth gear right from the beginning. Injuries haven't helped its cause, either.

The sad part about all this is that Inter actually has the potential to win back-to-back titles. The Reds are a solid side with plenty of good options in most sectors of the field. But they haven't shown the attitude or the will to succeed.

Inter still has enough time to correct the situation, and that starts on Wednesday night when it hosts the most important match of the year: Vélez Sarsfield at the Beira-Rio. It's a true do-or-die, as Inter must win the game at all costs in order to maintain the possibility of advancing past the group stage.

But it won't be easy. Embattled Inter will be up against a team that is still undefeated in the competition and is coming off a 3-0 triumph when the sides met in Buenos Aires two weeks ago. An extra incentive for the Argentines is that a victory will send them into the knockout round.

As of Tuesday, Inter shares last place with Emelec in Group 4. But while Vélez is virtually assured of a place in the next round, the other qualifying spot is open to any of the remaining teams in the group.

While Inter's problems have intensified, so has the pressure. The club has not only underachieved in the Copa Libertadores, but also in the Campeonato Gaúcho, the state tournament of Rio Grande do Sul. In a competition littered with lower-division opponents, the Reds have fallen to second-rate clubs such as like Ulbra, Santa Cruz and Juventude.

Even if Inter is able to get out of this mess, don't be surprised if it runs out of steam soon after. The side has clearly lost much of last year's character due to mismanagement that led to the sale of several key players. The mood in the dressing room isn't at its best, but if the problem is dealt with adequately, Inter can still be the big surprise.

If it wants to preserve its recent glory, Internacional must come out of its shell immediately. Braga's men don't have any margin for error if they intend to defend their crown. All three remaining matches from here on are must-win situations. It's now or never.

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