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Out with the Old, Inter with the New

Whole Motta love from Leonardo

Premier League clubs, take note.  It seems that the key to revitilizing your squad involves hiring a manager whose resume doesn’t include a stint at a club that rhymes with Shiver Pull.

Such is it with Internazionale. The World Champions never got off the ground under Rafa Benitez.  Even in this summer’s exhibition game in Toronto — against Greek champions Panathinaikos — the Milanese side lacked imagination and flow.  By the end of 2010, Inter sat seventh — 13 points behind their rivals AC Milan, who are threatening to take away one of the trophies their crosstown rivals won in their treble season.

So out goes Rafa and in comes Milano legend Leonardo.  Questions were raised in the Italian north whether the Brazilian could revive the tired and injured-riddled rivals of his former club.  Those questions were put to rest within three minutes during today’s match against Napoli.

The game was riveting from the get-go, with the ball going end-to-end — the antithesis of stereotypes about Italian football.  It was Thiago Motta who sparked the Inter revivial — finishing a Balkan sequence from Dejan Stankovic and Goran Pandev to put them up 1-0.

But Napoli are near the top of the table for a reason.  A corner from Liverpool reject Andrea Dossena went straight into the box, and a brave Michele Pazienza stuck his head in, bringing the Neapolitans level.

Fast forward to the 33rd minute when Diego Milito flubbed a wide cross in front of the net, sending the ball sailing over the crossbar.  But less than a minute later, Inter were back in the box and Esteban Cambiasso made no mistake.  The unmarked Argentine raced in and took a remarkable cross from Maicon in the far corner and converted. 2-1 Inter Milan.

It should be worth noting how Maicon seemed to drive the team forward.  The powerful Brazilian seems to have recovered from injury and awakened from his slumber in the first half of the season.  The fullback was a constant threat on the right, finding the ball wide and providing service for Inter’s attackers.

Motta celebrates his second goal...

But it was Motta who provided the book-ends for Leonardo’s first win in charge.  The former Barca man found the end of Pandev’s corner kick in the 55th, sealing victory for the Nerazzurri.

Massimo Moratti says he considered hiring Leonardo in June, but eventually settled on Benitez.  You can bet that English clubs like Liverpool, Aston Villa and West Ham have also spent the last six months regretting their choice of manager.  All three clubs may yet pull an Inter before the month is through.

Brent Lanthier

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Luck of the draw? Yids learn CL fate

Welcome to the Champions League, Tottenham. And just in case you weren’t sure who the best team in the tournament was, it became painfully evident as teammate after teammate from reigning title holders Inter Milan sauntered up to the stage during today’s draw in Monaco (a painfully long event but one surprisingly well photographed by audience members) to receive player of the tournament awards. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar, defender Maicon, midfielder Wesley Sneijder and striker Diego Milito (who also won player of the year) were each honoured with a small trophy and the opportunity to pick little balls out of a cup and reveal the teams within. And when all was said and done, Spurs found themselves in Group A alongside Inter’s star-studded cast. Will the Italian treble winners still be the same team with Rafa Benitez at the helm? We’ll find out when the Serie A gets rolling this weekend.

Of course, it’s a better draw for Spurs than they would have faced in Group G, whose teams have won a combined 20 Champions League crowns and finished runner-up nine times. At least, with Germany’s Werder Bremen and Holland’s FC Twente rounding out Group A, the last three teams are fairly evenly balanced, meaning second place and passage to the knockout round should be up for grabs. Despite their lofty UEFA coefficient, I’d rather face Bremen (third in the Bundesliga last year) from Pot 2 than any of Real Madrid, Roma, Valencia, Marseille, Panathinaikos or Benfica. Twente, who won their first Eredivisie title last season but saw Schteve leave for Germany over the summer, were one of the highest ranked teams in Pot 4. It’s also a kind geographical draw for Spurs, with no lengthy excursions to Kazan, Donetsk or Tel Aviv required.

Whoever the opponent, health of key players is a big issue for Spurs with the first matchday just over two weeks away. I’ll be happy as long as Welsh winger Gareth Bale, who set up all four goals in Wednesday’s famous 4-0 win over Young Boys, is healthy and ready to run. He’s been become  simply brilliant since Arry told him to stop messing with his barnet.

Fans of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, all Pot 1 teams, are undoubtedly feeling pretty comfortable about their team’s chances of progression to the round of 16, with all three London clubs dreaming of a berth at the Wem-ber-lee final. In Manchester, the police force is already bracing for trouble when Rangers visit, based on their experience from the UEFA Cup Final in 2008, while the tie gives Sir Alex gets a chance to face his former team.

What’s also shocking is the number of big names  who’ll be watching from the wings this Champions League season, including Liverpool, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Porto, Sporting Lisbon, Olympiacos, Villareal, Zenit St. Petersburg, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe.

In today’s Europa League playoffs, a reeling Aston Villa met their match in Rapid Vienna for the second successive year, with a Stiliyan Petrov penalty miss proving fatal, while Celtic’s European misery continued with a 4-0 defeat at Utrecht. Liverpool and Manchester City, however, both booked passage to the group stages, with the Reds reversing an early 1-0 deficit at Trabzonspor and Citeh easing to a 2-0 win over Timisoara.

On this side of the Atlantic, current MLS champions Real Salt Lake watched a 3-1 lead turn into a 5-4 defeat at Mexico City’s Cruz Azul in CONCACAF Champions League play Wednesday night, meaning all four teams in Group A, including Toronto FC, have a win and a loss through two matches. As for TFC, they were busy today announcing Doneil Henry as the first academy player to sign a pro contract.

Ian Harrison

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