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Under-fire Benitez gives jose a boost

JOSE MOurinho has been given support from former adversary Rafael Benitez after the Spanish club's 5-0 defeat at Barcelona on Monday.

Inter Milan coach Benitez clashed with the Portuguese on more than one occasion when he was at the helm of Liverpool and Mourinho was leading Chelsea.

When asked about Mourinho, Benitez said: "He's a very good professional and a good coach.

"When you reach this level it means that you have had a good career.

"I would shake his hand if we were to face each other because I'm a respectful person."

Benitez succeeded Mourinho at Inter Milan this summer. Mourinho left Inter for Madrid after leading the Nerazzurri to a Champions League, Coppa Italia and Serie A treble.

However, this year's campaign under Benitez has not been good and Lazio moved joint-top of Serie A with a 3-1 home win over Inter last night which plunged the champions and coach Benitez into a fresh crisis after the worst of their problems seemed to have passed.

Giuseppe Biava bundled the ball home midway through the first half and Argentine forward Mauro Zarate struck with a lob early in the second period to show that the early season form of last term's relegation candidates was no false dawn.

The visitors pulled a goal back through ex-Lazio forward Goran Pandev after a couple of rebounds but in-form Brazilian Hernanes sealed victory in style with a minute remaining.

"It was the best Lazio of the season," playmaker Hernanes, who joined the club before the start of the campaign from Sao Paolo, said.

"I've been trying for a bit to have a game like this with a goal and an assist.

"We're on the right path and won't give up," added Hernanes who played the ball through for Zarate's goal.

Sixth-placed Inter, whose hopes of a sixth straight scudetto already look remote, could slip 10 points behind AC Milan after just 15 games if their city rivals win at home to promoted Brescia tonight and retake top spot outright.

The match was Inter's last in Serie A this year ahead of their participation in the Club World Cup and the pressure is back on Benitez after wins against Twente Enschede and Parma had seemed to secured his position after a shaky spell.

Injury-hit Inter, who saw Dejan Stankovic limp off in the first half and were also without suspended top scorer Samuel Eto'o, played youth team defender Felice Natalino at right back while midfielder Sulley Muntari returned.

They again lacked fluency and the only bright spot was the previously struggling Pandev breaking his season's duck as the boos rang out around the half-full Stadio Olimpico.

Inter's dearth of attacking options without Eto'o and with Diego Milito only just back in training after injury means a move in the January transfer market for a striker is paramount.

"We knew it would be a tough game before the World Club Cup and without our two best forwards but the team battled until the end," Benitez said.

Inter owner Massimo Moratti has said he is willing to delve into his pockets to avoid the European champions from sinking even further but has described reports of a bid for Sampdoria's banished striker Antonio Cassano as "fantasy football".

Italy forward Cassano could become a free agent if an arbitration panel, which was due to meet on Friday but will now convene next week, rules he breached his contract by verbally abusing the Samp president.

All eyes will be on Milan's Ronaldinho tonight to see if he will be left on the bench for a seventh straight game amid speculation the Brazilian could be sold in January after failing to impress new coach Massimiliano Allegri.