Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Business as usual for Villas-Boas
At 11pm on Sunday night in the media centre under their Estadio do Dragao, nearly an hour after champions Porto had beaten Sporting Lisbon, Andre Villas-Boas had the room in the palm of his hand. In that sense, the Porto coach is easily compared with the man widely regarded as his mentor, Jose Mourinho, but from there the two men made in Porto start to diverge. Villas-Boas speaks softly, but with authority.
The 33-year-old has come from the bottom to the top of the Portuguese league in little over a year. He took his first job as a head coach with Academica in October 2009 with the modest Coimbra side stuck in last place, and shepherded them to a respectable mid-table finish.
Two weeks ago, he led his hometown club to a 25th league title at the home of their arch-rivals Benfica. Yet unlike the man who first welcomed him into his scouting team at the Dragao before taking him on to Chelsea and Internazionale, Villas-Boas is not one for listing his own achievements.
"The numbers aren't important," he told journalists. "It's that it was a clear victory for a team that wanted to win again, that attacked in a concise and clear way again." His style is to push his "incredible" players to centre stage, but however much he says the statistics don't matter, the truth is that it is they that are beginning to carve a distinct path for him away from Mourinho.
Victory over Sporting took Porto onto 77 points, a new record points total in a 16-team league, and saw them match the league record of 15 successive wins racked up by Antonio Oliveira's Porto side in 1996-97. More promise to tumble in the weeks to come. If Villas-Boas' side remain unbeaten through the three remaining games of the season, they will become only the second team to complete a Portuguese league season undefeated, after Englishman Jimmy Hagan's Benfica in 1972-73. Now in charge of Porto for 50 games in all competitions, Villas-Boas has won 43.
Nevertheless, Porto's hunger against Sporting - a game which mattered relatively little with domestic and continental cup semi-finals with Benfica (again) and Villarreal respectively on the horizon - was striking. After a slow start they mauled their opponents, with only the excellent visiting goalkeeper Rui Patricio preventing Porto from dishing out real punishment. It was in stark contrast to Benfica's preparation for a similar schedule, with their XI picked for the same day's win over Beira-Mar consisting of mainly fringe players: "(Pablo) Aimar and ten more", as Portuguese sports daily O Jogo described it.
Vilas-Boas is a different animal out in the open. As always, he spent Sunday's match on the very edge of his technical area, as close to being on the pitch as he can be, agonising over every play. With the supporters relaxed and enjoying themselves, starting the party deep into the eight minutes of added time, he was still pointing out instructions to his players.
If the young pretender lacks the brash exterior of Mourinho, he is no less firm. Walter, the Brazilian striker whose goal turned out to be the winner against Sporting, spoke after the game about a frank appraisal of his progress delivered to him by Villas-Boas earlier in the season - in the dressing room, in front of the rest of the squad. "They said that I was left out because I was going out at night, but that's not true," Walter said. "The boss said to me: 'If you don't arrive at the right weight, you won't play, and you won't be called up (to the squad).' And I ended up not playing for two months. I've managed to lose weight and he's giving me the chance to prove myself."
Villas-Boas' effectiveness has not gone unnoticed, and he has been linked with jobs at Liverpool, Juventus and Roma in the last few weeks alone. Speaking after Sunday's game, Porto's president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa was indignant. "I don't understand what people mean when they talk about keeping the coach," he blinked. "He already said in Russia (before the Europa League match versus Spartak) that he doesn't want to listen to other clubs, because he was born in Porto and he is FC Porto's coach, with a two-year contract."
Nevertheless, the relatively short length of the tie-up does rather leap out of Pinto da Costa's adamant words. International interest in Villas-Boas' work, which has not gone unnoticed in the Portuguese media, was again clear at his press conference on Saturday at the club's Olival training ground. "I don't live obsessing with what I can achieve in my career; I live in the present", he underlined, but he has never hidden his ambition.
Asked by a documentary team from BBC World Service, Villas-Boas declared the Premier League "the best league in the world" in his impeccable English. "I don't want to have a long career," he said. "But one that I can be proud of and, if it takes me to England, that will be a sign that I know what I'm doing."
He is likely to stay at least another year, to lead Porto into his maiden Champions League campaign. Villas-Boas' love for his club is evident when he is prompted to explain the secret of his success. "It comes from the talent I have at my disposal and from the culture of the club which has dominated the country's football over the last thirty years."
His first break at Porto was courtesy of Sir Bobby Robson, who invited the teenage Villas-Boas to training while in charge in the mid-90s before later offering him a job in the club's youth set-up. "He was decisive in the love I feel for this profession," he acknowledged, "and for the doors he opened for me at that age. I owe him." It is in the manner of the dear, departed Englishman, rather than Mourinho, that Villas-Boas sees his true lineage.