Benitez is gradually restoring his reputation as one of Europe's top coaches
By Sam Sheringham
At the start of the season, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was asked about the implications of Rafael Benitez replacing the Real Madrid-bound Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan.
"They favour Madrid, no doubt about that," was the characteristically blunt response from Ferguson.
While the lingering animosity between Ferguson and his former Liverpool sparring partner Benitez made his assessment predictable, the Scot's view reflected the general consensus that Madrid were getting the better deal and that all-conquering Inter would be weakened under the stewardship of a coach whose reputation nose-dived during a dismal final season at Anfield.
Three months into Benitez's tenure at the Italian and European champions and opinions are starting to change. Slowly but surely, the Spaniard is winning over the hearts and minds of fans, pundits and the all-important Italian press, who fell out so dramatically with Mourinho.
A solid if unspectacular start to the Serie A season - Inter are second, four points behind surprise leaders Lazio - has been overshadowed by a confident opening to the defence of their Champions League title, which resumes against Tottenham at White Hart Lane on Tuesday night.
RAFAEL BENITEZ FACTFILE
Born: 16 April, 1960, Madrid
Teams managed: Real Madrid B, Real Valladolid, Osasuna, Extremadura, Tenerife, Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan
Honours: Two Spanish league titles, one Champions League, one Uefa Cup, one FA Cup
Did you know? Benitez played for the Spain Universities XI in the World Student Games in 1979
A 2-2 draw at FC Twente was followed by a 4-0 thrashing of Werder Bremen and a first-half demolition of Spurs at the San Siro, during which Inter played with a flair and swagger rarely seen under Mourinho.
Although Gareth Bale's stunning hat-trick for the north Londoners narrowed the scoreline to 4-3, it did little to alter the impression that the holders would take some beating in this season's competition.
"In some ways their football is even better than last season," said John Foot, author of Calcio: The History of Italian Football. "It's less cagey, less Catenaccio-esque than Mourinho would play.
"The first half hour against Tottenham was pretty expansive football and the team can almost play with its eyes closed now. It's already clear that they are going to be in contention for all these trophies right to the end of the season."
Italian football analyst Tor-Kristian Karlsen says Benitez's Inter are less liable to sit back and soak up pressure than they were under Mourinho during the 2009-10 campaign.
"The team keep the ball more under Benitez and the defensive line is usually pushed higher up the pitch," added
a well-travelled scout and regular columnist for Calcio Italia magazine.
"Mourinho was more focused on defence and relied more on counter-attacks and the magic of individual players than the collective, rehearsed moves favoured by the Spaniard."
By any measure, Benitez had a hard act to follow. Mourinho's achievement of winning an unprecedented Treble of Italian league, cup and Champions League ensured any successor was almost certainly doomed to a degree of failure.
Whereas Serie A rivals AC Milan and Juventus spent heavily to enhance their squads for the 2010-11 season, Inter chose not to add to their resources, instead offloading the volatile but talented striker Mario Balotelli to Manchester City.
Benitez has kept faith with the 4-2-3-1 formation preferred by his Portuguese predecessor, but the subtle adjustments he has made to the side are reaping rewards.
The Spaniard's main alteration has been to end Samuel Eto'o's period of exile on the right wing and restore him to his favoured role as a central striker. The former Barcelona frontman has responded with a blistering start to the season, scoring 13 goals in 12 games.
Eto'o scores at World Cup
Benitez has also given youth a chance, with 18-year-old Brazilian Coutinho and 22-year-old Jonathan Biabiany of France both returning from loan spells to force their way into the side. The duo were outstanding in the victory over Spurs, adding flair and dynamism to Inter's attacking play.
"I think Rafa is giving more players a chance," Foot commented. "All Mourinho teams have a backbone of the older guard. It's nice to see Rafa experimenting a little bit more. There's a lot of pressure on Wesley Sneijder to create everything but they need someone else. Coutinho looks to have that spark about him."
Mourinho's two-year tenure at Inter was characterised by extraordinary success on the field but plenty of ill-feeling off it. The former Chelsea and Porto boss had countless fallouts with journalists and other managers, his polemical behaviour prompting Catania director of football Pietro Lo Monaco to claim he "deserves a smack in the mouth".
In March, Mourinho declared he was unhappy in Italian football "because I don't like it and it doesn't like me." He expressed a yearning for a return to the Premier League, where his charisma and arrogance drew nostalgic comparisons with legendary Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough.
In contrast, Benitez's reserved character and guarded discourse with the press seemed to irk fans and journalists in England, but it makes him a much better fit for the old-fashioned ways of Italian football, according to Karlsen.
"Unsurprisingly his entry has been a lot less controversial than Mourinho's. Whereas the Portuguese set his own agenda from day one, Benitez has been somewhat more diplomatic, on the whole showing respect to fellow coaches and the football environment. This is important to Italians who value their own school of thinking and traditions," Karlsen reflected.
Benitez is a much better trainer than a finder of players. Others might have a better eye for a player, but they wouldn't know how to train them like Rafa Benitez does
Benitez biographer Paco Lloret
"I don't think Benitez got the credit he deserved in England. Partly because he didn't offer the sound bites and easy conclusions that make you a tabloid favourite, but also because his thinking and ideas on football may have been too prudent and unsexy to win over the ever so demanding supporters.
"It's interesting to see how even the Liverpool supporters are spilt when it comes to Rafa. It's either love or hate, genius or idiot. I can't remember a manager or even a player stirring up the same mixed emotions."
One area in which Benitez divides opinion is his dealings in the transfer market. Pundits such as former Reds defender Alan Hansen have lambasted the Spaniard over big-money flops like Robbie Keane, Alberto Aquilani and Andrea Dossena, while his successor in the Anfield hot-seat Roy Hodgson last week bemoaned the number of "expensive failures" at the club.
Wherever the truth lies, Benitez is unlikely to play such a central role in buying players at Inter, where sporting director Marco Branca and owner Massimo Moratti have the final say in new signings.
According to Paco Lloret, Benitez's biographer and close friend, this system will suit the Spaniard, as it more closely resembles that which was in place during his time at Valencia, where he won two Spanish league titles and a Uefa Cup.
"Benitez is a much better trainer than a finder of players," Lloret stated. "He knows how to design systems and work with a team. Others might have a better eye for a player, but they wouldn't know how to train them like Rafa Benitez does.
Benitez looks on in frustration as Liverpool lose at White Hart Lane
"Benitez likes working behind closed doors. Everything which surrounds a club, like the media, Benitez knows it's important but he doesn't see it as a priority."
In returning to White Hart Lane on Tuesday night, Benitez is revisiting the ground where his Liverpool tenure began to unravel in August 2009.
Having taken Manchester United right to the wire in the 2008-09 season, Liverpool went into the following campaign with high hopes of ending their 20-year wait for the title, only to suffer a morale-shattering 2-1 defeat to Spurs on the opening day.
Early exits from the Champions League and both domestic cups followed and a seventh-place Premier League finish in May brought a sorry end to a regime that had begun with an stunning European Cup triumph over AC Milan in 2005.
And while many fans directed their ire at detested former American co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, there is little doubt that Benitez departed Anfield with his status considerably diminished.
"Right now Rafa faces a challenge to restore his reputation because his departure from Liverpool wasn't good," Lloret continued. "He's made a good start but there's a long way to go."
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