Thursday, 28 April 2011

Villas Boas leading Porto back to the big time

Eight years on from success in Seville, Porto are on the brink of a return to the Europa League final guided by a new rising star on the touchline

It is hardly surprising that a certain Portuguese coach should head the list of many of Europe’s top clubs looking for a new manager this summer.

Success has followed this man wherever he has gone, from his days as a very young man when Bobby Robson took him under his wing to the role he played in guiding Porto, Chelsea and Inter to league titles.

Young, energetic and fiercely committed to the finest of details, he is the epitome of the young European coach. Except, he probably isn’t who you are thinking of.

André Villas Boas has had to live in Jose Mourinho’s shadow for most of his career, but now his ability as a stand-alone coach are beginning to get the attention and praise they deserve.

Villas Boas was Mourinho’s assistant for seven years, through spells at Porto, Chelsea and Inter, until last season the opportunity to return to his homeland as his own man was too good to refuse.

In seven months he managed to guide struggling Académica de Coimbra from relegation certainties to mid-table respectability. A feat so impressive that in the summer Porto came calling with the offer to return to the Estádio do Dragão.

A further nine months down the line and the 2004 European champions have been transformed from a club in crisis back to the dominant force in Portuguese football.

A league record that reads – P 27 W 25 L 0 F 64 A 13 – saw the championship wrapped up with five games to spare after victory at arch-rivals Benfica last month. A defeat so painful for the Lisbon club that the sprinklers were turned on and floodlights turned off as the Porto players celebrated.

On the continent they have been equally spectacular. The 10-3 demolition of Spartak Moscow in the quarter-finals the most striking example yet of the extraordinary goal-scoring potential that the squad contains.

Indeed that attacking intent allied to Villas Boas’ preference for a 4-3-3 system and an intense pressing game has led to comparisons with Mourinho’s adversary, Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. Comparisons that may be fairer to a man who has always tried to maintain his tactical independence from the Real Madrid boss.

Like Guardiola, Villas Boas has indicated that his time in football management will not be for the long haul. In a week in which the stress placed upon football managers has been brought back into focus after Gerard Houllier’s health troubles, it is interesting that two young men with such a high profile are so acutely aware that such attention to detail in the short term can have drastic consequences down the line.

For the meantime, though, Villas Boas’ short-term goal is defined by glory on the European stage. After such an exemplary season another European final – the club’s third in eight seasons – is seen as a must, particularly given that another Portuguese side lie in wait – Benfica and Braga will contest the other semi-final.

However, Porto face their stiffest test this season if they are to make Dublin in the merry month of May with another Iberian coaching protégé occupying the opposition dugout this evening.

The Villarreal model of continuity had been held in high regard for many years in Spain. It had been how this tiny village of 50,000 people, albeit bankrolled by a tiling tycoon, had become one of Spain’s most successful clubs over the past decade. A decade previous to which they had never even played in La Liga.

At the head of this progressive project was Manuel Pellegrini. When the Chilean coach was headhunted to take over the antithesis of such stability under Florentino Perez’s Galacticos II project at Real Madrid, the Villarreal train was derailed.

Ernesto Valverde could only muster seven wins in 20 games before he was dismissed after only six months in the job. In came a little known, reserve team coach by the name of Juan Carlos Garrido and the yellow submarines improvement was so marked in the second half of the season that European football was back on the agenda at the Madrigal.

An experience that, unlike some who deride the Europa League, they have made the most of. As for all that Villarreal’s rise to prominence has been spectacular they have still yet to win a major trophy. Indeed it has been in Europe that they have come closest to breaking that duck with semi-final appearances in the 2005-06 Champions League and 2003-04 Uefa Cup.

For the first half of this season Villarreal were a joy to watch. Their brand of attractive, attacking football brought to life by players of the quality of Santi Cazorla, Borja Valero, Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi. The two best games of the Spanish season so far have arguably been when they have travelled to the Nou Camp and the Bernabéu.

Dani Alves paid Garrido’s men the highest of compliments after two goals by Lionel Messi consigned them to a 3-1 defeat to Barcelona in November by saying:

“They’re the only team I have seen come and play just like us.

“But we’ve got Messi.”

The same could be said of Real Madrid and Ronaldo when a dazzling Villarreal first-half display was undone by the Portuguese’s hat-trick in a 4-2 defeat.

They were even winning the league for much of the season. Their league that is, the one they and the other 17 teams behind Barca and Real play in.

Since the turn of the year domestic results have slipped as the focus has turned to Europe. Still the Champions League should be blessed by their presence next season as they sit comfortably in fourth place with only five games remaining.

Right now though for two of Europe’s most entertaining sides it is Dublin that is on the mind.

Villas Boas is determined to lose the tag of ‘the next Mourinho’. Villarreal hope he is not so special.

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