Pitchside Europe

Is Benitez doomed to repeat Inter mistakes?

It was inevitable really once Rafa Benitez got the Chelsea job that much of the focus would fall on his past at Liverpool and the opposition his appointment had provoked. Once he'd tried in vain to address those lengthy concerns, the time had come to explain why he hadn't been in work for nearly two years.

Some simply weren't prepared to accept that Benitez had been sensibly biding his time until the right opportunity presented itself and that finally his patience had brought its reward.

Sacked by Inter Milan shortly before Christmas back in 2010, the perception held by many was that Benitez's short five-month spell in charge at San Siro had been a failure and that his reputation had suffered accordingly.

Rather than blemish an otherwise great CV, Benitez claims, not without self-interest, that on the contrary, his was burnished by the experience as he added the Italian Super Cup and Club World Cup, a trophy that had escaped him at Liverpool, to his honours list.

The reality, however, lies somewhere in between.

"I never thought by coming to Inter that I'd have anything to lose," Benitez said at his official unveiling in 2010. "I arrive at the best moment. Could there be a more wonderful challenge than this?"

Yet Benitez had everything to lose.

Inter had just become the only Italian club ever to win the treble. After that the only way was down. President Massimo Moratti had fulfilled his wish to emulate his father Angelo by triumphing with Inter in the European Cup.

It had been his raison d'être. Apart from the European Super Cup and Club World Cup there was nothing left for him to achieve. Why would Moratti spend any more money when he had got almost everything he had ever wanted? And how could he spend like before with Financial Fair Play looming on the horizon?

One can imagine that it would be difficult to turn down an offer from Inter. It's certainly easier said than done. They're one of the world's biggest, most prestigious clubs and, even though Moratti has a reputation for hiring and firing at a rate Roman Abramovich would still do well to match, he'd at least be well remunerated should things get ugly.

By accepting the Inter job, though, Benitez showed questionable judgement. He was on a hiding to nothing. Why take it particularly when the act he had to follow was none other than his old rival Jose Mourinho?

There's an element of Brian Clough succeeding Don Revie at Leeds United to it. Benitez didn't tell the Inter players to throw their medals in the bin as such but any mementos of Mourinho's time at the club were removed.

Five Gazzetta dello Sport front pages of the greatest moments from Inter's history were blown up and displayed at the club's training ground in Pinetina. Marco Materazzi has since claimed that the one of Mourinho was taken down at Benitez's instruction and that he was also asked to empty his locker of newspaper cuttings celebrating Inter's treble and Italy's World Cup victory in 2006.

Matrix has an axe to grind of course and whether his claims are true or not is subject to debate. But the Clough and Revie comparison doesn't end there. Because Benitez also seemed to believe he could "win it better."

The team that famously "didn't want the ball" in their Champions League semi-final against Barcelona was to become possession based. Benitez thought he could teach this Inter side a thing or two. "Everything good that had been done before will be kept," he said. "Then if we can learn something new, all the better."

It came across as a bit presumptuous. Inter had just won everything. They'd clearly been doing something right. But it was the sense that he knew better that rubbed some players up the wrong way. "He wants to make a 37-year-old like me a better player," Materazzi scoffed. Benitez can be forgiven for trying to teach an old dog new tricks. But leader of the pack he wasn't.

Nostalgia for Mourinho was strong. Inter's players had loved and lost. They'd have done anything for Mourinho. Wesley Sneijder claimed they were prepared to "kill and die" for him. Samuel Eto'o didn't go that far, but he did sacrifice himself by playing out of position, often as an auxiliary full-back. When Benitez asked him to do the same, he politely refused.

This was precisely the problem. For all of Benitez's ability at game-management, his man-management left a lot to be desired and would contribute to his position at Inter becoming untenable.

He had started well enough. Inter won the Italian Super Cup, coming back from behind to beat Roma 3-1. A week later they lost the European Super Cup to Atletico Madrid but overcame the disappointment with three wins from their opening four games in Serie A, including an impressive display at Palermo that brought plenty of plaudits. "During the season," Benitez said, "players, former players [and Moratti] told me that they were seeing Inter play their best football for 20 years, that we were the Italian Barcelona."

From then onwards, however, it began to fall apart.

Roma got their revenge, as Benitez tasted his first defeat in Serie A. Cristian Chivu mouthed off at the bench, partly in frustration at not receiving any cover, indicating that all was not well at Inter. They started the defence of their Champions League title in underwhelming fashion with a 2-2 draw away to FC Twente and were then held at home by Juventus in the Derby d'Italia.

The Tottenham games exacerbated matters. Inter were 4-0 up inside 35 minutes at San Siro with an extra man after Heurelho Gomes's sending off, but were almost embarrassed as Gareth Bale inspired a fightback to 4-3. They then lost 3-1 at White Hart Lane.

It was at this point that Moratti became publicly critical of Benitez. After a 1-0 defeat to Milan in the Derby della Madonnina, he said: "It doesn't seem to me that we were outplayed. The problem is that we didn't play. It's a different thing. It's much worse. I didn't like it at all."

Rumours that Benitez had lost the dressing room quickly began to circulate. Esteban Cambiasso called the TV show Controcampo to deny reports that he had asked Moratti for a change of manager. When asked in a post-match interview why no one had gone over to embrace Benitez after Inter scored the only goal in a 1-0 win at home to Twente, he lost his temper then stormed off.

The tension was high. It grew further after the 3-0 defeat to Werder Bremen. Inter were already through to the knockout stages, but their opponents, because of injuries, had fielded an almost second string side and shouldn't have got the scalp of the Champions League holders. When asked about Benitez's future after that game, Moratti simply replied: "We'll see."

Rafa Benitez alienated senior players, including Marco Materazzi (back, right)

It must be said in mitigation that not everything was the manager's fault - far from it in fact. Inter had spent next to no money in the transfer window. Benitez had been unable to bring in his own personnel [Dirk Kuyt and Javier Mascherano] and freshen up a squad left exhausted by a treble-winning campaign and the World Cup in South Africa that followed. Many had nothing left to give. "Jose got 120 per cent out of us," Dejan Stankovic said.

As a consequence, the bodies of a number of key players were breaking down. Rarely if ever could he line up a full strength side. There were 50 separate injuries under Benitez in five months. Admittedly, his training methods were different to Mourinho's. Inter's players had been used to sessions with the ball. There was little running and fewer weights. That slightly changed under Benitez but not dramatically enough to cause such an increase in injuries.

He laid the blame at the door of the medical staff. To Benitez's incredulity, the players were doing extra sessions in the gym against his say so. "We have done studies," he said. "The injuries happen because 15 players are over 30, because 60-70 per cent have already had [the same] injury and because, I repeat, there's this gym aspect [to things]."

Benitez wasn't in a position of strength like he had been at Liverpool where he could influence decision-making on issues such as transfers and treatment. He was at Inter as "a coach, not a manager." That's what he'd signed up for. Yet he still had justification to feel undermined throughout, if not by the president's public disapproval of him, the players' reported dissent and the medical staff's duplicitousness then by Mourinho. "What? Has he lost again?"

As much as Benitez failed Inter, it's fair to say that they failed him too. Eto'o even apologised following the club's decision to sack him, admitting "we didn't do everything within our abilities." But Benitez's actions at the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi didn't help his case. For example, Stankovic had got Inter into the final with an inspired performance against Seongnam. Fit again and back on form, he felt confident of starting the competition's decider with TP Mazembe. But Benitez inexplicably left him out. "It's an open wound," Stankovic said.

At least he got on the pitch as Inter won 3-0. Materazzi was left on the bench. As one of Inter's talismanic figures, it was thought he'd at least get a cameo out of respect for everything he'd done for the club. Benitez instead made McDonald Mariga his final substitute. Materazzi went down the tunnel and refused to join his team-mates on the podium to collect the trophy. He has never forgiven Benitez. Later he credited Inter's triumph in the Club World Cup to the club and his team-mates, not to the manager.

Benitez, as he has done at other times in his career [particularly when presenting the media with 'facts' about Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson], then made one of his biggest miscalculations. While everyone was celebrating how Inter were on top of the world again for the first time since 1965, he brought everyone crashing back down to earth. Benitez made the Abu Dhabi ultimatum.

"There are three possibilities for the club," he said. "One, support the coach 100 per cent 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."

Inter went with the latter. Benitez probably thought that he was in a position again to make such demands, but his timing was "inadequate," because, as Moratti complained, "this is a happy moment," a time for celebration.

Had Benitez waited, things might have been different. In all likelihood, however, things were too far gone, particularly considering he could no longer count on the support of the veterans in the dressing room. Even Inter's mild-mannered captain Javier Zanetti felt "something broke" between the team and Benitez after the Abu Dhabi ultimatum.

What happened next can be seen one of two ways. Either as an indictment of Benitez or vindication. Inter appointed Leonardo. They bought Andrea Ranocchia, Yuto Nagatomo and Giampaolo Pazzini in January and climbed from seventh in Serie A to second. For Benitez, it proved him right. A few reinforcements, like he'd advised, and the team had soared.

Yet it was an illusion. Inter were at the end of a cycle and Leonardo had papered over the cracks. Only this summer did they realise that a new one had to begin. It wasn't so much the coaches, as the players. They had to take responsibility too.

Benitez's time at Inter should be seen with that in mind. Yes, he made mistakes in taking the job in the first place and in his handling of it, but to say he was a flop is to overlook the difficulties he inherited and how, with the exception of Leonardo and later Andrea Stramaccioni, they were beyond some of his successors.

If he had lost the support of the president and players, the fans stayed with him until the end. When Inter arrived back at Malpensa from Abu Dhabi, the supporters in attendance sang: "Benitez stay with us."

So what conclusions can be drawn in light of his appointment at Chelsea? True, there are some similarities. He takes over the Champions of Europe. It's short-term, as his time at Inter turned out to be. And Benitez will have to show greater tact than he did at Inter in his dealings with the players who've made history at the club. Yet in contrast to then he inherits a team at the beginning of a cycle, not the end of one. The prospects for success are greater.

However, as with taking the Inter job, his judgement here is questionable again. Because, regardless of Chelsea possessing the profile and the resources to match his ambition, his belief that it might be different for him than for the other nine managers in nine years at Stamford Bridge, that he can persuade Abramovich to give him the job on a permanent basis just by winning trophies, is perhaps as flawed as the confidence he had in thinking that he could better what Mourinho had achieved at Inter.

James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

Follow @JamesHorncastle