Two quotes to reporters -- in the space of a few days -- from Inter president Massimo Moratti neatly sum up why the bad old days may be back.
"Ten years ago, I would have sacked Rafa Benitez by now, but I've grown as well, we all have." Then, a few days later. "I'm not going to create problems before or during the World Club Cup, afterward, we'll see."
Talk about undermining your coach in the space of a week. What happened in between those two statements? Inter lost 3-1 away to Lazio, second in Serie A, in a game in which it played badly, but had six starters missing. And it also fell 3-0 away to Werder Bremen in the Champions' League (it had already clinched qualification to the knockout round), in a game in which it played three teenagers (none of whom had started a match before this year), a 38-year-old reserve goalkeeper, and a 6-foot midfielder deployed at center back (Esteban Cambiasso).
Benitez has a huge contract and a better résumé than any other Serie A boss: it's only right to hold him to account. But the time to criticize -- in public -- is when he has the tools to, objectively, do better. Or, if you're of a populist bent, when the fans -- the ones who actually show up at the San Siro, not the armchair forumites -- turn on him. Neither is the case.
Both Inter's Ultras and the mainstream fans have, generally, been supportive. As for having the "tools" to do better, Benitez's list of excuses is long. Just four of his projected starters -- Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto'o, Javier Zanetti and Lucio -- have played 75 percent of Inter's minutes this season. Maicon and Walter Samuel, half of the back four that was so dominant last year, have missed half the season thus far, with Samuel out for the year following a recent knee injury. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar, another crucial ingredient has been out for six weeks, while Diego Milito, last year's top scorer, has missed half the season thus far and has lasted 90 minutes just twice this year.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that Inter has, generally, played badly; it's not just a question of results. Here, blame must be shared. While the club won't admit explicitly, Inter's brief to the new manager was this: win some silverware (the European SuperCup and the Club World Cup would do just fine), compete for the Serie A title and/or the Champions' League and integrate some of the youngsters in the first team. All this, while keeping Jose Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 system intact: a turnkey operation, basically.
Easier said than done. For a start, while Benitez also showed a predilection for the 4-2-3-1 at Liverpool, it was an entirely different style. Liverpool pressed high up the pitch, Mourinho's Inter tended not to. You only need to look at the personnel.
Fernando Torres is an entirely different player to Diego Milito. Steven Gerrard and Wesley Sneijder are chalk and cheese. Compounding the problem is the obvious: following a guy like Mourinho, with a squad that was loyal to him and which is aging and battle-worn was never going to be easy. Especially for a guy like Benitez, whose personality can't match the Special One's when it comes to winning over players. And particularly when Inter failed to make a single significant signing for Benitez in the summer (unlike the previous year, when it picked up half a dozen tailor-made starters for Mourinho).
A bit of research should have shown Moratti who and what he was getting in Benitez. A very good manager, probably a better tactician than Mourinho, but one who needs certain tools to succeed. And Benitez, perhaps blinded by the huge paycheck, probably should have thought long and hard about accepting the job and on what terms he was going to take it. Instead, you can only conclude that Inter figured it could pay him a lot of money to go and impersonate Mourinho (something he is most definitely not cut out to do) while leaving everything else intact.
So what next? Moratti has uncorked a Pandora's box of speculation with a range of names which, frankly, seems disconcerting and out of sync with the medium-term plan (which is to push youth this season and next in an attempt to bring down costs and move toward meeting the Financial Fair Play requirements -- a goal which seems miles away right now).
The fact that Fabio Capello, 65 next summer, and Giovanni Trapattoni, who turns 72 in February, are among the names mentioned as replacements should terrify Inter fans. Are those the guys you'd charge with a long-term rebuilding job? Leonardo and Luciano Spalletti may be somewhat more viable options, but the former's past as a Milan man would unleash a whole other can of worms and the latter is tied to the kind of mega-contract at Zenit St. Petersburg that would force Moratti to do what he swore he wouldn't do: throw good money after bad.
Of course, none of this speculation will help Benitez or, for that matter, Inter. What is even more frustrating is that, privately, Inter officials maintain that Benitez's future will be decided when the Champions' League resumes. By that point, he'll be expect to get the club back closer to contention for the title (not easy, given that Inter is 12 points back now) and into the quarterfinals of the Champions' League. Fail on both counts and that's when the ax will drop.
So why ratchet up the pressure now? To appease the media calling for Benitez' head? To be seen to be doing something? Who knows? It's Inter we're talking about after all. Logic doesn't live here.
Whatever happens, transition lies ahead, whether with Benitez or with somebody else at the helm. Lucio, Samuel, Cristian Chivu, Mancini (remember him?), Ivan Cordoba and Marco Materazzi all go out of contract at the end of this season or the next. Javier Zanetti does too (though when it comes to him, you don't rule out anything: heck, he's RoboCop, he'll probably play -- and well -- until he's 40).
The future belongs to Davide Santon (and -- as with Obiora Nwankwu, Joel Obi and Felcie Natalino -- it's crucial to figure if he's good enough or not), Andrea Ranocchia (what a boneheaded move it was to send him to Genoa this year!), Philippe Coutinho, McDonald Mariga and Rene Krhin (OK, he's been injured, but surely he would have come in handy: another Ranocchia-type lack of foresight).
Moratti and Benitez figured they could eke out another season or two out of last year's crew, but when Mourinho left, he evidently took the mojo with him. The question is whether you hand the rebuilding to Benitez or look elsewhere. You need someone -- whether it's Rafa or one of the other candidates -- who can do it through youth and on a shoestring. Get this decision wrong and Inter will feel the repercussions for a while.