Thursday, December 15, 2011
Porto missing their prince
For an especially urbane, polite and well-raised gentleman, André Villas-Boas has upset a lot of people in the last seven months. First he left Porto, after consistently denying he would countenance a departure from his hometown club after just one season. Now, the initial charm offensive of his early weeks at Stamford Bridge has morphed into a struggle of attrition with a sceptical media and the overarching influence of entrenched senior players.
While there was great anger in northern Portugal at the timing and the manner of his exit, that has now largely subsided, and he is missed. Villas-Boas returned in October to attend his former club's annual awards ceremony at the grand Coliseu do Porto, where he was honoured with the 'Dragão do Ouro' (Golden Dragon) award for the most influential clubman of the year. The erstwhile Porto head coach and his wife Joana sat in the front row, a few seats along from club president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa in the front row - in front of his replacement, and former assistant, Vítor Pereira. The symbolism was lost on nobody.
Ensconced in his shot at the big time, former Santa Clara coach Pereira should be loving life, with Porto now unbeaten in 51 Liga games - five short of Benfica's all-time record of 56, which ran from October 1976 to August 1978. A yawning 656 days have passed since they lost 3-0 to Sporting at the José Alvalade, on February 28 last year, during Jesualdo Ferreira's tenure. Yet instead there is an augmenting swell of doubt that Pereira can cut it at the top, with the curious possibility that he could even be fired without losing a Liga match.
It isn't beyond the boundaries of possibility. This, of course, is Portugal, where Sporting fired the late Sir Bobby Robson in late 1993, with the Lisbon club on top of the league. Sporting's then-president, beer magnate José de Souza Cintra, later described the decision to sack the Englishman as the "worst mistake of my life" as Sir Bobby went on to enjoy huge success at northern rivals Porto.
Still, poor old Pereira is no Sir Bobby, and looks unlikely to lead the Dragons to similar success. Pinto da Costa's reasoning in appointing him - less than 24 hours after Villas-Boas' exit was officialised - was sound. The idea was to retain as much of the coaching staff as possible to keep the magic alive, and only fitness trainer José Mario Rocha followed Villas-Boas to Stamford Bridge. Pereira's appointment also aimed to avoid the catalogue of blunders that followed José Mourinho's far more telegraphed departure in 2004, when Luigi Del Neri was fired without bossing an official game and stop-gap Víctor Fernández was appointed. José Couceiro became Porto's fourth coach in under a year when the Spaniard was given the push in January 2005.
Promoting Pereira was a banker in at least one sense. The players liked him, unlike when the Champions League-winning squad had taken an instant distaste to Del Neri. Yet as Portugal's most famous number two Carlos Queiroz has consistently proved, there is a world of difference between a top coach and a top head coach. So far, Pereira is falling way short in his new role.
Quite simply, he lacks authority. Villas-Boas was no dictator at the Dragão, with Helton, his erstwhile captain at Porto, describing him as "our friend" in the aftermath of the Europa League final win in May. Yet his word was unquestioned, even in the context of his dressing-room democracy. Brazilian striker Walter told ESPNsoccernet back in April how Villas-Boas had chided him for being out of shape in front of the rest of the squad and challenged him to find fitness and form, which he did in the closing weeks of the season.
Villas-Boas' Porto team moved in the image of their coach. They were snappy, confident and clear. Although the loss of Europa League record scorer Radamel Falcao was a blow, Pereira arguably has a better squad at his disposal. Porto spent €43 million in the summer, a transfer window record in Portugal. The likes of Steven Defour and Eliaquim Mangala provide competition for the established players, like João Moutinho, Fredy Guarín and Rolando.
Yet if Porto have been able to bluff their way through most of the Portuguese domestic season so far - dropping just six points in the first 12 matches - they have blown their chance of a meaty Champions League comeback. They failed to negotiate a group where the waning Shakhtar Donetsk and a jittery Zenit St Petersburg were also stymied by surprise packages APOEL.
A team that looked so certain last season and is virtually unchanged looked bereft of ideas to crack APOEL, which should have been the least of Porto's problems with the alternatives at Pereira's disposal. Worse was the lack of heart and discipline to come back against Zenit in the second match at the Petrovskiy.
The questioning of the coach started quickly, with the folly of leaving Walter out of the 25-strong Champions League squad quickly becoming clear. The inexperienced Kléber started well, netting the winner against Shakhtar, but ran aground afterwards, and Porto had no back-up. Walter's guile and knowhow has been missed.
Pereira was lambasted by the Portuguese media for claiming that there was little between his club and APOEL, and the usually cagey Moutinho also laid bare the doubt in the camp after the Dragão draw with the Cypriot side. "We're not managing to be a team," the Portugal international said. "We can't be so individual. I'm not at my best, and nor is the team." Such utterances would have been unimaginable in the ultra-confident Villas-Boas era.
If anything offers Pereira a glimmer of hope it is - paradoxically - the performance in the final Champions League group match, in which his team failed to break down Zenit. "It was our best match of the season, collectively," Hulk said after the game. It showed Porto still have it in them - but also highlighted Pereira's inability to coax it out of them often enough. With Benfica and Sporting resurgent, there will be no hiding place.