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Inter Said to Plan Appointment of Leonardo as Benitez Successor

European and Italian soccer champion Inter Milan plans to replace fired coach Rafael Benitez with former Brazilian national team player Leonardo, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Leonardo, 41, whose only previous coaching experience was with Inter’s cross-town rival AC Milan last season, has been mentioned as the leading candidate by Italian newspapers including La Gazzetta della Sport. Benitez was ousted yesterday, only six months after signing a two-year contract.

Inter will make an official announcement within two days, said the person, who declined to be identified until the appointment is disclosed to the public. Inter didn’t immediately respond to calls and an e-mail seeking comment.

“The only thing I can say now is Merry Christmas to everyone,” Leonardo said late yesterday in Milan when asked to comment by broadcaster SkyTG24.

Benitez guided Inter to the Club World Cup title six days ago. That 3-0 victory over African champion TP Mazembe Englebert was the highlight in a campaign that has seen Inter struggle to recapture the form that produced a record sweep of three titles under former coach Jose Mourinho last season.

Inter has slipped to seventh place in Italy’s Serie A under Benitez, winning six of 15 league games, leaving it 13 points behind leader AC Milan, the team owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The failure to finish ahead of Tottenham in its Champions League group resulted in a draw with Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the competition. Inter beat the four-time European champion 2-0 in May’s final.

Criticizing Management

After victory in the Club World Cup last weekend, Benitez criticized Inter owner Massimo Moratti and the club’s management for failing to buy new players before the season started, saying “four or five” might be needed.

In recent days, Benitez returned to England where he still has a house near Liverpool. The Spaniard is getting a severance payment of 3 million euros ($3.9 million) from Inter, according to Italian news agency Ansa. U.K. press reports said he received at least 4 million pounds ($6.2 million) when he left Liverpool in June.

Leonardo played more than 120 matches for Milan before joining the team as a technical director in 2008. He was promoted to manager following Carlo Ancelotti’s move to Chelsea in May 2009.

Milan finished third under the Brazilian and he was replaced by Massimilano Allegri at the end of the season. He remains a popular figure with Milan supporters, who chanted his name after his last match in charge, a 3-0 home victory over Juventus in May.

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