Rafa Benitez has a hard road ahead

Rafa knows the pressure is on to keep Inter on top

Say what you will about Rafael Benitez, but he doesn’t take the easy way. The Spaniard left a Liverpool team in turmoil, only to assume a mantle of unreasonable expectations. Inter Milan is coming off a massive treble-winning season under former manager — and one-time Benitez rival — Jose Mourinho. With Mourniho off to Real Madrid, all eyes are now on Benitez to see if he can carry the load. So when Inter rolled into our hometown of Toronto to play Greek champions Panathinaikos, we couldn’t resist taking a peek.

Only 17,000 fans showed up to watch a match billed as a “Clash of the Champions”. The Guardian has called it Toronto’s “friendly fatigue”. It was probably a bit optimistic to hold the game in the cavernous SkyDome the day after a long weekend… and only three before Toronto’s famous Greek festival, Taste of the Danforth.

It was ironic that Panathinaikos’ goals had Benitez’ fingerprints all over them. The former Liverpool manager sent Pana midfielder Sebastian Leto to Athens — after the Argentine’s passport problems prevented him from playing on Merseyside. Leto’s 13th minute cross from the left wing found Cisse — who helped Benitez win the Champions League in 2005. Cisse’s effort was turned away by Inter goalkeeper Paolo Orlandoni, but the Frenchman pounced on the rebound and slotted it inside the post just inches off the line. 1-0 Pana.

Cisse's touch -- and temper -- dominated the game

Cisse then doubled the lead in the 22nd minute, taking a pass inside the centre circle and dribbling untouched through the opposing half before turning Ivan Cordoba and hammering home a shot from outside the 18-yard box.

Inter got on the board in the 32nd minute when Victor Obinna’s cut-back from the goaline fell to Samuel Eto’o in the box, where the Cameroonian striker fired home through two helpless defenders.

Panathinaikos restored their two-goal cushion in the 42nd minute when Sotirios Ninis’ pass found Leto charging into the box, where the Argentinian-born winger easily chipped the charging Orlandoni. More misery for Benitez from his former players.

Inter's superstar substitutions up the tempo of the game

Inter’s addition of six star substitutes — including Lucio, Maicon, Muntari, Samuel and Maicon — seemed to add a bit of grit to the game. Cisse was wisely subbed off after getting into it with the brutish Luccio. Cisse tried to head-butt the Brazilian, not once but twice. What is it with head-butting Frenchmen against Italian teams?!? Shades of Zidane…

Inter, who open defence of their Serie A crown away to Bologna on August 30, pulled it back to 3-2 in the 85th minute. Coutinho who took a pass on the left side of the area and tucked a hard shot inside the near post.

The loss was Rafa’s first in his second game at the helm. And while Benitez dismissed the defeat, he has to know the same media outlets that drove his incredibly successful predecessor out of Italy will already be sharpening their knives for him.

Ian Harrison, Brent Lanthier

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