David Beckham's Madrid successor Wesley Sneijder ready to upstage him in Milan
Wesley Sneijder assumed Beckham's No 23 jersey in Madrid and has emerged as a direct rival in the same city once more. To extend the parallels, he is also Inter Milan's designated taker of free-kicks. As if the comparison could not be any more flawless, the 25 year-old has the partner with whom to challenge the 'Posh and Becks' juggernaut, in the shape of model girlfriend Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen. As the personification of Dutch reserve, Sneijder can leave the pin-up opportunities for the moment. His sole concern this week is to project himself on to the back pages, not the gossip pages, by assuming a pivotal role in the thwarting of Chelsea on Wednesday, when Carlo Ancelotti's players come to town for a Champions League occasion to remember. His confrontation with Michael Ballack in the midfield engine room could be the compelling, if not decisive duel of the night. Sneijder has been credited by his manager, Jose Mourinho, with affording Inter an element they had conspicuously lacked when the Portuguese took over: namely, a creativity between midfield and attack. He represents a precious acquisition of the Mourinho reign, to offset the 14 players who have left, having arrived last summer for a fee of just £13 million — such was the surprising alacrity with which Real sought to dispose of him. Had it not been for the fact that Sneijder stood a good few inches shorter than Beckham, he could have been mistaken for his predecessor in all-white by his fabulous free-kick technique, which gave him an impressive strike-rate for a midfield player. He may have been known only for his previous prowess in the Dutch league but already, at the world's richest club, he was proud enough to assert his own identity. 'I don't want to be compared with Beckham,' he said, when the name was invoked once too often. 'I respect him a lot and admire him, but I don´t want people thinking I have come to replace him.' But at Real, Sneijder became too quickly surplus to requirements, while then coach Bernd Schuster perceived him as a little too prone to injuries. In the last six months, the qualities that Schuster spurned, Mourinho has harnessed. When Sneijder scored the winning goal at home against Udinese this season, the manager performed a jig of joy, sticking his tongue out as if trying to savour the relief around the arena. Such an immediate impact in Serie A owes much to Sneijder's versatility in a league whose players are not known for it. He is eager to shoot from any distance, with either foot, and is Inter's most accomplished handler of the dead ball. It is little wonder he is already being touted as one of the star turns at this summer's World Cup, but first he has Mourinho's faith to repay. Sneijder is well aware of the threat of Ballack, one of Mourinho's first signings at Stamford Bridge, from their competition on the international stage. The German appreciates, too, that his old mentor is likely to channel much tactical acumen into unleashing the talents of his Dutch adversary, and into making life as awkward as possible for Chelsea. 'There won't be any information that Mourinho doesn't know about,' Ballack said. 'He always knew everything about every opponent, every player and every tactic. He knows the players from his time here and only a few new ones have arrived, but the core of the team has remained the same. He gave us our style of play, which has not changed over the last few years.' Carlo Ancelotti cannot argue that his team have not been warned. Even so, the Chelsea manager can be confident of outsmarting Mourinho's ruses, and neutralising Sneijder's threat. For one thing, the Sneijder reputation as a dead-ball genius could count against him, so susceptible have Chelsea been from set-pieces of late — and hence so well-drilled in anticipation of a game of this magnitude. Restricting Inter's sights on goal should not prove too difficult in light of how successfully Napoli managed it in a 0-0 draw last weekend. Should Sneijder throw off the shackles and score, though, you can expect that the first person he will thank will be his bella Yolanthe. He did the same following his goal against Udinese, winning over soft-hearted Italians everywhere. Modest and endearing: Sneijder, heir to Beckham, has clearly learned from the master.
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