Serie A returns on Thursday with a round of fixtures boasting plenty of intrigue. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended, could Antonio Cassano make his Milan debut against Cagliari? Will Sebastian Giovinco come back to haunt Juventus? Can either of Bari or Lecce – last and second-last in the table – make a statement in Serie A’s first Puglia derby for a decade? After overturning the decision to have the match played behind closed doors, the authorities will mostly just be hoping the game goes off without a hitch.
Inevitably, though, the greatest focus will be on events at San Siro, as Leonardo makes his debut as the manager of Internazionale. There is nothing straightforward about his first appointment. That there should be a 10-point gap between Inter and Napoli by January would have seemed plausible enough at the start of the season, but none could have imagined that the champions would be the ones trailing. Napoli, joint-second in the table, have already won five times away from home in Serie A this season – a tally matched only by Milan.
Leonardo will recall drawing home and away against Walter Mazzarri’s side when he was in charge of Milan last season, but if Inter are to haul themselves back into this year’s title race then only a win will suffice in such a fixture. Certainly the manager has done nothing to play down expectations, telling reporters at his first Inter training session that he believed his team could still win the Scudetto. His players are similarly confident. “I think it is possible,” said Samuel Eto’o. “Because Inter have the best squad in the Italian championship.”
Not so long ago that would have been considered an indisputable statement of fact, but Milan’s additions of Ibrahimovic, Cassano, Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng over the last two transfer windows have altered the balance of power. There are many who would contend that the Rossoneri now possess the more talented roster. Nevertheless it is clear that Inter boast the means to at least force their way back into contention. The issue, then, is whether Leonardo can lead them there.
The sceptics will point, with justification, to his lack of experience – last season with Milan was Leonardo’s first as a manager. But as Rafael Benítez’s tenure proved, experience isn’t everything. What Inter need more than anything else right now is a change. And Leonardo is a very different man to the Spaniard.
Benítez was criticised for being too much of a “scholar” during his time in Italy but while Leonardo studies philosophy in his spare time and cites Gandhi in press conferences, his demeanour is far from bookish. He may not be one to bring out the hairdryer – and with locks like those, who could doubt there is one – for half-time team-talks, but his warm and personable nature allows him to command players’ affections in a way that the Spaniard never could. He has seemed to spend much of his early training sessions with an arm draped around a player’s shoulder. The goalkeeper Júlio César described him as “a friend”.
The nature of training has already changed dramatically, too, with Benítez’s lengthy gym work-outs ditched in favour of more time working with the ball – as was the case under Mourinho. Three thousand fans attended Leonardo’s first session, and a further 1,000 were allowed in on Sunday after showing up at the gates of Inter’s Pinetina complex even though that day’s work was supposed to be behind closed doors. The fans have certainly been enthusiastic in their welcome for Leonardo, though it should be remembered that many, too, were supportive of Benítez right to the end.
But if not being Benítez stands Leonardo in good stead, then it is also true that he is not Mourinho either. The Portuguese’s shadow still looms large over Inter and past experience suggests that it may not fade for some time yet. Chelsea’s difficulties finding an adequate replacement are well documented, while Porto went through no less than three managers in the year after Mourinho departed.
Gigi Del Neri, now of Juventus, was sacked before Porto’s next season even began, while his successor Víctor Fernández didn’t last past January – with things having got so bad at one point that the Brazilian midfielder Carlos Alberto reportedly brandished a knife at him. Even José Couceiro moved on in the summer after eventually steering Porto to second.
But if it cannot be guaranteed that Leonardo will avoid a similar fate, then he has at least tried a different route. The common themes among those who have struggled to follow Mourinho at Porto and Chelsea have been excessive expectations combined with difficulties in winning over players who had grown attached to the Special One. But while most have sought, unsuccessfully, to play down the weight of the recent past, Leonardo has chosen to embrace it.
When Benítez arrived at Inter it was reported that he had asked for a picture of Mourinho to be taken down from the walls at Pinetina, and while the owner Massimo Moratti has since insisted that the club acted without consulting the new manager, he did acknowledge that they had done so because they knew he did not have kind feelings towards his predecessor. Leonardo, by contrast, raised Mourinho’s name without any prompting at his official unveiling, and went on to enthuse about the legacy left at Inter by the Portuguese.
“I phoned him and he was extraordinary with me,” explained Leonardo. “Exactly the fuoriclasse that he was while he was here and that you can see from what he has left here. Because Mourinho has left something here – you can feel it in the atmosphere, he is everywhere, almost spiritually present. Coming to Inter without going through him would have been impossible.”
Perhaps it will prove impossible to succeed this way, too, but Inter’s supporters can only be grateful for such an approach. After all, even if Leonardo is unable to right the ship this season, the least they can ask is to be allowed to enjoy the successes that came beforehand.