|Under pressure Benitez could well be out of Milan before Christmas|
After Inter's final Serie A game of 2010, it looks like a case of so near and yet so far for Benitez. Beaten 3-1 by Lazio at Stadio Olimpico on Friday, Inter have slid to 10 points behind league-leaders and city rivals AC Milan. And should next week's proposed players' strike be called off, then the gap could be stretched to 16 points come the Nerazzuri's next league fixture.
Benitez is now, indisputably, on the brink. As one journalist put it over the weekend: "a man walking with a pistol at his own temple". Everything now rests on the next two weeks. On Friday Inter fly to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup, where they will join the likes of Brazil's Internacional, and DR Congo's TP Mazembe, for the chance to become the world's best club side. The Inter owner Massiomo Moratti had declared before the club's latest defeat that he would rate the season "6.5 out of 10", but "if we win the Club World Cup, I will add 3.5", putting huge pressure on Benitez to make Inter become the first Italian side to win five trophies in one calender year. The desire from Moratti to see his team become king's of the world is almost palpable.
If the owner has made it plain that international glory is of paramount importance, that does not mean he is happy with how things are going at home. Having only won six games all season, Moratti was described by Gazzetta Dello Sport (the biggest sports paper in Italy) as "serenely livid" after Friday's defeat. Caught between the fury of another loss, and excitement about the next fortnight.
Moratti's most consistent complaint about Benitez's Inter is the lack of desire shown by the players, and the inability to grind out results. A stark contrast to Mourinho's team of last year. To back this point up, Inter have committed the fewest amount of fouls in Serie A in this season, and also have the least amount of yellow cards to their name. This showed on Friday evening, where players like Matuzalem and Stefan Radu of Lazio knocked many of the Inter players out of their stride.
Nor will the owner stand for excuses about absent players. Inter have suffered 42 separate injuries already this season, with Dejan Stankovic becoming the latest in a long line of absentees, limping off at the weekend clutching his thigh. But Moratti subscribes to the widely held belief throughout Italy that Benitez is partly to blame for this. The Spaniard's training methods have been called into question, with a lot of emphasis being based on strength and conditioning, rather than work with the ball.
But if the journalists were lining up to condemn Benitez at the weekend, then Moratti must take a share of the blame himself. Not for the first time this season Lazio were inspired by Hernanes, the summer signing from Sao Paulo, a player who has taken to Serie A like a duck to water. A player who The Times proclaimed to be the most exciting young player in the world back in January 2009. A player who should have belonged to Inter.
The Nerazzuri had the first option to buy Hernanes back in the summer, but due to rule changes stating that a team could only buy one player from outside the EU, they decided to go for the 18-year-old Coutinho from Vasco de Gama instead. The youngster has shown enough already - the first half against Tottenham at San Siro springs to mind - to suggest that he may have an exciting future at Inter. But Hernanes has shown this season that he has an even more exciting present.
Depending on what you read, Hernanes is either "the new Kaka", "an even better Deco" or "the Brazilian Pirlo", but whichever way you look at it, he is something very very special. Such comparisons are rarely helpful, but they should be seen as a tribute to a player who's composure and grace mean he can dictate play from the centre of the park like few in Europe right now.
On Friday he was at the heart of everything Lazio did well. Mauro Zarate, the ex-Birmingham forward, may have gained more plaudits for the way he tormented the Inter defence, but it was Hernanes who pulled all the strings. It was the Brazilian's header that allowed Guiseppe Biava to put Lazio ahead, his perfect cross-field ball which put Zarate through for their second, and his free-kick which settled the game in the 89th minute, when Inter had looked like grabbing an equaliser.
The match was Hernanes's 58th of 2010, but unlike the Inter team he was facing, looked almost spring-like in his effervescence.
The Fat Spanish Waiter then needs to start serving up a few more gratifying results, otherwise he could be sent back to Iberia without his panettone.