Leonardo faces a baptism of fire on his Inter debut against Napoli

Inter Milan v Napoli, Serie A, January 6, 2011

Inter Milan 1.833; Draw 3.57; Lazio 5.14

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It’s game on in Italy on Thursday as a full schedule of calcio sees Serie A swing back into life in 2011. AC Milan lead the way with 36 points, with surprise packages Napoli and Lazio locked in joint second on 33 points each. By contrast the reigning champs Inter Milan languish in seventh spot, a massive 13 points off their city rivals.

Inter’s fall from grace, most clearly marked by the hiring and firing of Rafa Benitez within the first half of the season, has been one of the major stories this Serie A year. After returning home from the UAE with the Club World Cup in the bag, the Spanish coach was summarily dismissed with a cold-hearted email, and former Rossoneri boss Leonardo was appointed.

The question of whether Benitez’s dismissal was fair stains Inter’s first game of the new year. Sympathisers for Rafa argue that the facts were stacked against the Spaniard from the get-go. Following Mourinho’s departure to Real Madrid, it was widely acknowledged that the Nerazzurri’s squad needed freshening up, but Benitez never got the money he was originally promised.

Suffering from an aging squad, and a squad who started the campaign exhausted after winning the league, Champions League and Coppa Italia and then having largely used up any reserves of energy at the 2010 World Cup, Inter’s set-up was at a major disadvantage when Benitez came into town. The injury count during the back end of 2010 offered damning evidence as much.

The likes of Walter Samuel, Diego Milito, Douglas Maicon and Julio Cesar were out for extended periods. Others periodic absentees included Sulley Muntari, Thiago Motta, Dejan Stankovic, Goran Pandev, MacDonald Mariga, David Suazo, Wesley Sneijder and Esteban Cambiasso. No top team in the world could manage without players of their stature.

Acting as the scapegoat, the Spaniard was shown the door and Leonardo walked in. But many wonder what an average ex-Milan coach can do to revive Inter’s fortunes.

Cynics would argue that there is nothing Leonardo can do. Particularly in the short term. Particularly against Napoli. Instead, they predict that the Brazilian will receive a baptism of fire on his return to the San Siro.

Leonardo’s goes into his first game without Julio Cesar, Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o, Walter Samuel and Coutinho. On the more positive side, Leonardo has been boosted by the signing of defender Andrea Ranocchia from Genoa, and the centre-half could slot straight in alonsgide the likes of Lucio and Javier Zanetti.

Without so many of his attacking options, Leonardo’s likeliest forward-thinking planning maybe to play last year’s hero Diego Milito and this year’s rising star Jonathan Biabiany as a duel frontline, while Dejan Stankovic will be asked to support the attackers from midfield.

Compared to Inter’s patched up situation, Napoli can swan into the San Siro on a wave of confidence. Five straight wins at the end of 2010 put pay to that. Not since the glorious days of Diego Maradona have the San Paolo outfit looked so strong starting a New Year.

Credited with much of the success is Napoli’s coach Walter Mazzarri. Mazzarri was never much of top clas footballer during his heyday, and his early foray into management was rather understated too. But then he received his big break with Sampdoria back in 2007 where, after signing the likes of Cassano, he managed to quality the club to the Europa League and take them to an Italian Cup final.

Mazzarri then arrived in Naples in 2009 following the sacking of Donadoni, and since a transformation has transpired. Napoli turned their 2009/10 season around to finish sixth and return to European competition, but moreover they forged a cohesive unit which gained the final piece in a shrewd signing last summer.

Attracting Edinson Cavani from Palermo, Napoli signed a world-class striker who has the stars of the season. With a league leading 10 goals to El Matador’s name already, Napoli no longer need to rely on Ezequiel Lavezzi or Marek Hamsik to score. Pressure off, both Lavezzi and Hamsik now seem to be revelling in their new found freedom.

Napoli have some other talents aside from their star-studded attacking trio. Others who have excelled too, such as energetic wing-backs Andrea Dossena and Cristian Maggio, central midfielders Walter Gargano, Michele Pazienza and goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis.

For all of Napoli’s new found success, they have a long history of failure at Inter. The Azzurri haven’t won at Inter since 1994 when Wim Jonk own goal and an Andre Cruz second sealed a 2-nil away win. Nevertheless, as the cliche says records are there to be broken, and Napoli have probably never had such a good opportunity to put that into action.

101gg predicts: Inter Milan 1 – Napoli 2

Inter Milan 1.833; Draw 3.57; Lazio 5.14

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