Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Inter vs Inter: Club World Cup preview

No, this is not some concocted spin on in-fighting among the nerazzuri.
Internazionale's problems have been well documented of late, the only contention being whether this is due to Rafael Benitez's tactical obduracy and fitness regime, sheer bad luck with injuries or a perfect storm of all of the above.

But what about their Brazilian namesake, SC Internacional of Porto Alegre?

It's no secret that for any South American club side, the intercontinental gong is seen as the pinnacle of club competition, an attitude completely at odds with the esteem in which European supporters hold it - some more than others, it must be said.

For Inter (the Reds, as opposed to the Black-and-Blues), there is an element of viewing this clash in Manichean terms; the chance to show the rest of the world that no matter how they whisk away the best Brazilian talent at a young age to the higher pay and esteem of European leagues, they cannot ignore or disrespect the South Americans' credentials. Of course, whatever ignorance exists on may be borne out by the reality that winning a one-off match against a European champion (featuring at least three star Brazilian players) is hardly testament to definitive superiority.

We take it as a given that such intercontinental ties should be dismissed by fans of English teams, what, given the cultural isolation between Northern Europe and South America that exits (sometimes self-imposed in the case of England and international tournaments). But besides the innate intertwining of history that exists between Spain and Portugal and their former colonies, there are also strong demographic links with Italy.

Mass immigration during the past century-and-half dictated that over half of today's populations of Uruguay and Argentina is of Italian descent, and large swathes of southern Brazil whence S.C. Internacional draw their support, can boast a similar profile. This has a natural effect of a) better enabling certain players to claim Italian, Spanish or Portuguese citizenship and thereby become eligible to play as EU-community players and b) promoting a level of awareness of southern European club sides among the Argentine, Uruguayan and Brazilian public. In the case of Brazil, we have big club sides such as Palmeiras and Cruzeiro who were previously called Palestra Italia or indeed smaller sides such as Juventus from São Paulo, founded by Italian immigrants.

In terms of how this affects the World Club Cup, it is certain that claiming the reigning Italian and European champion's scalp would be seventh heaven for the legion of Internacional supporters. For the Milanese outfit, on the other hand, perhaps fans would not exactly cry tears of dispair or joy, but there is at least some pride at stake here and not just in terms of equaling their rossoneri city neighours who won the prize in recent history. The Argentine and Brazilian playing staff at Inter will lend this clash a touch of particular interest and it is hard to imagine Esteban Cambiasso or Lucio taking this adventure lightly.

Admittedly, and from Internazionale's perspective, the intrigue surrounding the mini-tournament in Abu Dhabi has increased somewhat due to the 'deliver-or-be fired' sign that seems to be floating above Rafa Benitez head.

Nevertheless, there was never any danger that this competition would be taken for granted on the part of Internacional, and the consensus in Porto Alegre seems to be that Rafa's difficulty is Celso Roth's opportunity. The Spaniard's managerial counterpart has admitted to effectively having given up on trying to dispute the Brazilian league title since about two-thirds of the way through and instead focusing all his efforts on an immaculate preparation for Abu Dhabi.
Even the final games of the Brazilian championship were treated as training exercises in advance of the World Club Cup, with tactical alterations being tested and players being rested/put through their paces in accordance with the coach's masterplan.

As if that wasn't enough, hardly a day has gone by when the sports media has not reported on every possible muscular contraction or bruise emerging out of Appiano Gentile thousands of miles away. Inter di Milano's injury crisis may be worrying Massimo Moratti but it is being relished by Inter de Porto Alegre and alterations to playing strategy are being realised on this basis.

At this juncture it is best to sound a cautionary note; poor domestic and continental form is no more an indicator of how Benitez' men will perform in this very singular and special tie than is Internacional's predilection for patient, elaborative football a sign of how they will set-out to face blatantly superior opposition. What price the nerazzurri, counting on the likes of Zanetti and Maicon, will play out of their skins and generate a revival that could turn their entire season around?

As for the colorado let us bear in mind just how they won this title the last time around. In 2006, a Ronaldinho-led Barcelona was not able to break down Inter's massed ranks that included some details of man-marking. Inter nicked the game with a counter-attack in the second-half. It was a similar story the year before; a miserly Sao Paulo defeated Liverpool albeit in a manner that was not overtly different to the style of football that they usually paraded in Brazil ( playing at times with five men across the back).

So how will Roth approach this game tactically? Will he smell the blood of a stumbling Internazionale and look to capitalise on this by sending out his team in their customary open manner?

In my opinion this would be foolhardy, since recent history suggest that the only viable way for the South American club sides to topple European opponents is by sitting deep. In this year's victorious Libertadores campaign, Roth managed to push the team's defensive line up signicantly higher than is the norm in Brazil and encouraged his players to press their rivals whilst staying compact as a block. But this was generally against sides who are used to playing in a much more dispersed manner.

Consider, after all, the distances that exist between lines. Thiago Silva has spoken of the difficulties he faced after moving to Milan since at Fluminense he had been accustomed to loitering in the vicinity of his own final third. With defensive midfielders, advanced midfielders and forwards all seperated over a greater extent of pitch than one would expect to find with a European team, defensive funcitons are in theory zonal but in practice become man-to-man, such is their predictability. But now the Reds will be facing an Italian club who are used to playing in a more compact style week-in, week-out.

My own view is that whilst Roth would prefer his players to defend aggressively, he will be sensible enough to sit quite deep and in a 4-3-2-1 formation. The Christmas Tree is hardly new to Inter; indeed, their Libertadores campaign typically featured that or else a 4-2-3-1 depending on the opposition they faced. In practical terms, this equated to Roth removing one of the offensive midfielders for a more combative player when the occassion so suited.

The run-in for the domestic championship did see Internacional revert to a more Brazilian 4-2-2-2, but as mentioned above, the marking duties in such a scheme are usually mirrored in the positioning of the opponents; volantes pick up the centralised meias, the meias pick up the rival volantes and so forth.

Against the nerazzuri however, the Brazilian side would be facing a 4-2-3-1 set up with emphasis on pace and doubling-up along the flanks. Bear in mind that the Brazilian 4-2-2-2 differs from the Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini variations: whereas Arsenal and Villarreal entrusted their playmakers (Pires, Cazorla etc) to shore up the flanks when out of possession, the Brazilian equivalents usually stay central and indeed dormant for large periods in the defensive phase. It is hard to imagine that Roth will want his offensive full-backs (Kleber and Nei) to be exposed to constant 2v2s from the likes of Maicon and Pandev.

What we might see therefore is an extremely defensive midfield trivot featuring the tenacity of Pablo Guinazu, Tinga and Wilson Mattias. Note that not one of these players is really a playmaker in any sense. The former two have been used in more box-to-box roles in the past but overall the emphaisis here would be on shifting across to screen the vulnerable full-back whilst also screening the central area just in front of the back four.

Creative duties will almost exclusively be delegated to the advanced midfield pair (D'Alessandro and probably Giuliano) who will be expected to feed a lone striker, the rapid Rafael Sobis or the bulkier presence of Alecsandro. The choice of the later will largely depend on how confident Roth feels about entrusting his men with possession. The more technically adept Sobis is clearly the man to lead the line if quick counter-attacking is the order of the day. Alecsandro can hold the ball up for the encroaching pair of enganches plus the overlapping full-backs if Inter are to have any hope of elaborating their play. This would have the advantage of relieving the Brazilian side of pressure and taking the sting out of the game, rather then converting the game into a to-and-fro contest, a contest in which they could never be sure as to when they would recapture the ball.


  1. Interesting to see a match preview on a game that may never occur! A Christmas Tree formation would suit Internacional as I feel they will have to lower the tempo of the game down as Internazionale would have too much pace for them. A narrow 5-man midfield will allow a lot of passing options for the players to flourish under. Furthermore, based on the Internazionale - Werder game yesterday, Inter seem to have problems defending crosses without Lucio and Walter Samuel and Alecsandro will do better aerially than Rafael Sobis. That said, 4-3-2-1 will require full-backs to come forward to cross and Internacional's full-backs will need to be positionally astute as quick players such as Jonathan Biabiny will make use of the space left by them. Additionally, Sobis should be played if Materazzi is employed because the latter is slower than a G-Wiz with its battery running out. Don't know who/what comes out worse in that statement.

  2. Indeed Dan,

    Very presumptious on my part.

    I'm not ruling out a surprise from Mexican outfit Pachuca, but the consensus in Porto Alegre is that Internacional at the least will progress to the final.

    Your concern about the full-backs is well-founded; for orthodox exponents such as Nei and Kleber, positional nous and ability to defend as part of the back line (far post, set-pieces and so forth) is deemed almost secondary to the main task of motoring up and down the pitch.
    Hence the ever-vigilant presence of the colorados' wide defensive midfielders will be essential.

    In fact, I'm really unsure as to the fruitfulness of instructing the full-backs to be cautious. If they stay deep as genuine defenders surely they will only invite the likes of Biabany and Pandev to encroach further and could spend the game pinned back in a position where they would serve as a nuisance to the Milanese wingers but no more. So they might as well try to play their natural game since it is their raison d'etre.

  3. Perhaps the wide players in the three-man midfield can act as carrileros and negate the threat of Internazionale's wingers from deep thus allowing Internacional's full-backs the opportunity to advance. This will require discipline and stamina from the carrileros though.

  4. Shame to see your effort semi 'wasted' on this piece. Your analyses generally have good depth, perhaps a look in retrospect next time? Hehe...