London: European champions Inter Milan will rewrite the record books and claim a place among the greats if they retain the Champions League trophy this season.
Huge obstacles stand in their way, of course, from Spain’s Barcelona and Real Madrid, England’s Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, last season’s runners-up Bayern Munich and their arch-rivals AC Milan.
Europe’s leading bookmakers have almost all ignored Inter’s claims and installed Barcelona as favourites to repeat their 2009 success with Real Madrid and Chelsea also heavily backed.
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But Inter’s new manager Rafa Benitez won the competition in 2005 with Liverpool and would like nothing better than to restore his reputation as one of Europe’s shrewdest coaches.
If Benitez leads them to victory at Wembley Stadium on May 28, they would emulate their own back-to-back successes of 1964 and 1965 and take huge delight in becoming the first club to do so since AC Milan triumphed in 1989 and 1990.
But no side has remained European champions after changing a winning manager since Bayern Munich lifted the trophy under Udo Lattek in 1974 and Dettmar Cramer in 1975.
That is the challenge facing Benitez who replaced Jose Mourinho when the Portuguese decamped to Real Madrid after securing last season’s triumph over Bayern to make Inter European champions for the first time for 45 years.
Mourinho may have got up the noses of the Italian soccer establishment but he gave Inter a winning mentality in Europe after decades of under-achievement in the world’s premier club competition.
Inter have decided to stick with the same ageing squad, minus striker Mario Balotelli, leaving fans worried the lack of investment will harm their chances.
Inter face Tottenham Hotspur and Twente Enschede as well as Werder Bremen in the group stage but will need to improve their early season form which has been patchy.
Among those threatening Inter’s ambitions are Barcelona, eager to make up for last season’s semi-final loss to the Italians, and a rejuvenated Real Madrid under Mourinho.
The canny Mourinho’s arrival at the Bernabeu has raised hopes the club can end a lengthy drought in Europe’s elite club competition.
The nine-times continental champions have failed to make the quarter-finals for the past six seasons, a galling statistic for big-spending president Florentino Perez.
The construction magnate returned to the club before the 2009-10 campaign pledging to restore former glories but even an outlay of a quarter of a billion euros ($319 million) on players including Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka failed to yield a trophy.
Real have spent wisely, bringing in Germany midfielders Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, Argentina winger Angel Di Maria and teenage midfielder Sergio Canales.
But Pep Guardiola’s Barca side have added prolific Spain striker David Villa, combative Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano and versatile Brazilian defender Adriano Correia.
Mourinho, a former assistant coach at the Nou Camp, got the better of Guardiola last season but it will be hard to mould the Real squad into an effective team in his first campaign.
If he does he will become the first man to lift the European Cup with three different clubs following his initial triumph with Porto in 2004.
Real are also in a tricky group, pitted against old rivals AC Milan, Ajax Amsterdam and Auxerre of France.
Barca, by contrast, are the finished article, boasting eight Spain internationals, including World Cup winners Villa, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and should progress comfortably from a group with Rubin Kazan, Panathinaikos and FC Copenhagen.
Chelsea, who played outstanding football to claim the English double last season, have won their first three league games with a 14-0 goal tally and have recruited exciting midfielder Ramires from Benfica and Israel’s Yossi Benayoun.
Manchester United can never be ruled out especially if Wayne Rooney puts his off-field problems out of his mind and reproduces the scoring form he showed for most of last season.
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Arsenal have failed to win a trophy for five seasons but usually do well in Europe.
Manager Arsene Wenger’s best piece of transfer business was keeping Cesc Fabregas at the Emirates, boosting the chances of a London side lifting the European Cup for the first time.
With three London teams competing, the first time one city has provided three sides in the competition, and the final taking place in their home city, there is even more incentive than usual for them to go all the way.