With 15 goals from 13 games for FC Internazionale Milano this season, Samuel Eto'o is just one behind the total he managed in 48 outings last term.
The No9 has been in breathtaking form and leads the UEFA Champions League and Serie A goal charts with six and seven strikes respectively. When Eto'o suggested in the summer that he might like to revert to his customary centre-forward role, few could have envisaged how quickly the goals would start flowing again.
I have always played where the coach told me to play – I have defended, chased balls and set up my team-mates. I have always done what I had to do," the 29-year-old Cameroonian international said at the time. "But that is not my role. If I am the best striker in the history of my national team it's because I have always played as a centre-forward."
The trouble was, under José Mourinho last season that position was filled by Diego Milito who was playing his best football as the Nerazzurri claimed the UEFA Champions League and Italian domestic double. Eto'o's selfless wing play and defensive discipline revealed a different dimension to his game, yet under new coach Rafael Benítez the predatory striker of old has re-emerged.
Eto'o may have begun this campaign on the left of midfield, with Milito the lone forward, but a glut of goals combined with injury to Milito have convinced Benítez to move him into the middle and the results have been emphatic. All Inter's victories this term have featured Eto'o goals; indeed, when Eto'o has failed to score Inter have not won or even found the net.
His goals have been as crucial to Inter's success this season as Milito's were last, so much so that it has been mooted that the Beneamata depend too much on their rejuvenated attacker. Benítez laughs off such talk. "
Eto'o is a solution, not a problem," he said. "Last season people said Inter depended on Milito and they won three trophies. Well, let's hope we have the same happy ending with Eto'o this time."
Two more Eto'o strikes in last Wednesday's victory over Tottenham Hotspur FC had Benítez smiling again. The Nerazzurri started the campaign slowly, but are now warming to their new coach's style and tactics. Benítez's initial approach was to avoid tinkering with the successful side Mourinho had bequeathed him, but Eto'o is feeling the difference.
"We played more on the counterattack with Mourinho, now we put more pressure on opponents," he said. "For the strikers this is much better, because we win the ball closer to the penalty area and consequently have more chances. It was more difficult for me to play on the flank."
While Eto'o has Benítez to thank for a fresh lease of life, the coach is expecting still more from his frontman. "I think Eto'o could get 36 goals like he did in 2008/09 for Barcelona, he's doing really well." Benítez's decision to step into the shoes of a coach as revered as Mourinho was a brave one. What to do when Milito returns from injury could prove his next great challenge.
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