Inter Milan are running on empty

Rafa Benitez has inherited a side exhausted after last season's treble-winning efforts.

When a US president leaves the White House, stories are often told about the tricks his aides play on the incoming regime. It is said that a decade ago, when the Democrat Bill Clinton gave way to the Republican George W Bush, Bush's underlings found the letter W - the initial that distinguished Bush from his father - mysteriously removed from computer keyboards, and that fax and telephone lines had been disconnected, just to cause annoyance.

Rafa Benitez, the head coach of Inter Milan, must feel something similar has happened to him. The office he occupies, the one where Jose Mourinho until recently dwelled, is decorated with the last European Cup, the previous five Serie A titles, the Coppa Italia; his squad shows a list of international stars.

But something is malfunctioning; the operational infrastructure wheezing. Inter's 1-0 defeat in the Milan derby has left Benitez's team fifth in the table, six points behind the leaders, who happen to be their neighbours and fiercest rivals.

Benitez cites, with some justification, an unusually heavy toll of injuries for this latest setback in a poor run of form.

One such absence is easily blamed for the loss to AC Milan. Walter Samuel, the rugged Argentine central defender, is out for the best part of the rest of the season, and it was Samuel's replacement who made the error that settled the derby.

Marco Materazzi made a poor challenge on Zlatan Ibrahimovic that earned Milan a fifth-minute penalty. Ibrahimovic scored it. Materazzi is 37 years old. Sunday was his first start under Benitez. "It's not as if he was making his debut," remarked Benitez, anticipating criticism. "He's a footballer with so much experience. And how many errors did he make? One. The problem was with the whole defence, not Marco."

At least Benitez has learned that Materazzi, for all that he contributes rarely on the field, is a key political ally for any Inter head coach.

Mourinho - the Clinton to Benitez's George W Bush - used to use Materazzi sparingly but praised him at every opportunity. That was typical. Mourinho cultivated relationships with Inter's players in a way that, mostly, inspired their loyalty and had them raise their game.

But he also left them tired, inevitably, because in winning the three trophies available to them during the last campaign, Inter played an awful lot of football.

Then most of the senior players went off to the World Cup, several reaching the knockout stages with their countries. That created further conditions for chronic fatigue.

"There are players who are not at the level they were last year," added Benitez.

Materazzi, withdrawn just after an hour against Milan with a muscle problem, has now joined Samuel, goalkeeper Julio Cesar, full-back Maicon, midfielders Thiago Motta, Sulley Muntari and MacDonald Mariga on the injury list, with yet more games to be played at the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi next month.

Esteban Cambiasso is continuing his recovery from injury and at various times this term Benitez has been unable to call on Javier Zanetti and Diego Milito. "Last season," Benitez added, "Inter won a lot matches with late goals, through Milito."

That sort of stamina, he senses, is now lacking: Inter faced a Milan reduced to 10 men for the final half-hour and still they could not make it count.

Age is not with them, either. Milan are often caricatured as a club trying to make Peter Pans out of players approaching middle-age, but the Inter starting XI had more men over 30 than their opponents. Mourinho may have kept Inter's engines running vigorously, but the needle on their petrol meters were flicking into the red by the time he left the vehicle in Benitez's parking bay.