ABU DHABI, December 7 – European champions Inter Milan will start as favourites at the FIFA Club World Cup, which begins on Wednesday, but they are also in dire need of a boost after a tumultuous start to the season.Inter booked their place at the annual tournament in Abu Dhabi by ending a 45-year wait for Europe’s top club prize with a 2-0 defeat of Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in May.
The triumph in Madrid completed an unprecedented treble of Serie A, Italian Cup and European success, and confirmed Inter’s place at the summit of the Italian game after years in the shadows of neighbours AC Milan and Juventus.
The good times, however, proved short-lived.
Coach Jose Mourinho jumped ship to Real Madrid in the close-season and, despite the squad largely remaining intact, his successor Rafael Benitez has struggled to sustain success at the San Siro.
After 15 games of the current Italian campaign, Inter sit 10 points behind league leaders AC Milan, having already lost four times and scored just 20 goals.
Benitez has been hamstrung by injuries to key players, including goalkeeper Julio Cesar, Brazil right-back Maicon and last season’s top scorer Diego Milito, but he insists they will travel to the Middle East in good heart.
"This year after the World Cup the players came back late and we immediately had to prepare for two cup finals (the European Super Cup and the Italian Super Cup)," Benitez told the FIFA website.
"It hasn’t been easy, but we have strength in depth and the desire to get to Abu Dhabi in peak condition."
It will be Inter’s first appearance at the tournament, contested by the champion clubs from all six continental confederations, and club ambassador Luis Figo says "winning it has become an over-riding objective for the club".
Inter’s strongest challenge will likely come from another Inter, Brazilian champions Internacional, who claimed their second Copa Libertadores crown with a 5-3 aggregate victory over Mexicans Guadalajara in August.
Internacional won the 2006 World Club Cup, beating Barcelona 1-0 in the final in Tokyo, and they will become the first previous winners to take part in the tournament, since it was rebaptised as the club World Cup, for a second time.
The two Inters will not enter the competition until the semi-final stage, however, with five other teams bidding to join them in the last four.
African champions Tout Puissant Mazembe tackle CONCACAF Champions League winners Pachucha of Mexico in the first quarter-final on December 10.
South Korean side Seongham Ilhwa, the Asian champions, enter the fray a day later and will play the winners of Wednesday’s preliminary game between Oceania champions Hekari United and local champions Al-Wahda.
"Hopefully we will play against Inter Milan at some stage in the tournament," said Seongnam Ilhwa’s Australian skipper Sasa Ognenovski.
"As a player, you always want to test yourself against the best teams in Europe. I think they might prove to be the best team of the FIFA Club World Cup this year, so hopefully we can face them."
Hekari, from Papua New Guinea, are without doubt the tournament underdogs and striker Kema Jack says he is still pinching himself about his side’s participation.
"In some of our villages we don’t have the internet or newspapers or television," he said.
"They know the big clubs from around the world. But some villagers from Koparoko, where I am from, think I am making up a story that we have qualified!"