If the broad smile on Maicon’s face is anything to go by, the impact made by new coach Leonardo in his short but eventful time at the Inter Milan helm has been overwhelmingly positive. Having struggled for form and results prior to December’s FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2010, that morale-boosting trophy win, the return of key players from injury and a new supremo have all combined to turn I Nerazzurri’s season around.
In the little over three weeks since Leonardo took charge, the reigning Italian champions have embarked on a run of five straight wins – four of which were in Serie A – to climb up the table into fourth spot, just six points behind leaders AC Milan with a game in hand. Goals have been flowing at an average of three per match, while confidence levels and the mood in the camp are buoyant once more, despite the absence of such influential performers as Wesley Sneijder and Julio Cesar.
“Since he (Leonardo) arrived, things have changed a lot around here. The atmosphere’s great,” said Maicon in an interview with FIFA.com. “He’s been able to get his ideas across already, despite not being here long, and everyone has grasped what he’s said. It’s not just me, everyone feels more motivated since he’s come in. We’re all in it together and we’re going to do our best to help him do a good job.”
Turning over a new leaf
All of which is a far cry from the turbulence of November and early December when, with previous boss Rafael Benitez's cause undeniably hampered by injuries to star men, the team endured a five-game winless streak. Yet after treading water in Serie A and nearly missing out on a berth in the UEFA Champions League knockout stages, Benitez’s men shook off the mounting pressure to become world champions at UAE 2010.
That triumph looked to have earned the former Liverpool manager a reprieve, though relations with Inter President Massimo Moratti had reached such a nadir that Benitez was dismissed shortly after the club’s return to Italy. “We were a bit surprised to see the coach go after we’d won the Club World Cup,” said Maicon, giving the players’ view of proceedings. “Perhaps he did something that the directors didn’t like and which the fans weren’t happy with either. But I’m not getting involved in that. What I want now is to have a great season under Leonardo.”
With the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Diego Milito and Javier Zanetti firing on all cylinders in January, Inter are now in a position to move second in Serie A should they win their remaining game in hand, which is away against Fiorentina on 16 February. And having been beaten 1-0 by pace-setters AC Milan in the first half of the season, a victory for Inter in April’s return, allied to a continuation of their current form, could prove decisive in the blue-and-black half of the city’s dreams of a sixth successive Scudetto.
“We’ve got good results in recent weeks and we need to keep that going and hope the others slip up. We had some bad results late last year, but our goal will always be to win the Italian title,” said Maicon. “And we’ve got the return match against Milan still to come. I hope that we can rise to the occasion when it comes to that decisive match, but we know it’s going to be tough and that they’ve a nice lead over us right now.”
European bid still on course
Champions League winners last season, when they defeated Bayern Munich in the final, Inter find themselves up against the Bavarian giants at the Round of 16 stage of this season’s competition. “We’re hoping to repeat what we did against Bayern in 2010,” continued the Brazilian right-back.
“They’ll be analysing our play, but we’ll also know what their approach will be. Our big advantage is that we’ve got a taste for victory and we know how to tackle matches like this. We realised how enjoyable it is to play in the Club World Cup, but we also saw how much we had to go through to get there. So we’ll be giving it our all to win the Champions League again. Winning trophies is the lifeblood of every player, so we mustn’t take our foot off the pedal now.”
Adding to his already extensive silverware collection would also boost Maicon’s chances of fulfilling two personal ambitions for 2011. One of these is to hold on to the right-back spot in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI, which he claimed in 2010, and the other is to win a recall to the Brazilian national squad, having not appeared for his country since the 2-1 quarter-final defeat to the Netherlands at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Back to form and fitness after overcoming the injuries that sidelined him in November, the 29-year-old defender concluded the interview by vowing to earn the trust of A Seleção boss Mano Menezes. “Everybody knows how I’ve played for A Seleção. To get back involved I need to keep winning things with Inter, and that’s what I intend to do. I really want to play in the World Cup in Brazil (in 2014) and I’m going to do everything in my power to achieve that.”