x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Villas-Boas is Porto's 'Special Two' aiming to make it to No 1

The well-schooled Andre Villas-Boas was not much of a footballer, but like Jose Mourinho, he has the chance to direct his Porto side to another European triumph.

Andre Villas-Boas, the Porto coach, was advised to apply for coaching courses in Britain by the late Sir Bobby Robson during his time in charge of the Portuguese club between 1994 and 1996.
Andre Villas-Boas, the Porto coach, was advised to apply for coaching courses in Britain by the late Sir Bobby Robson during his time in charge of the Portuguese club between 1994 and 1996.

These days, whenever a new set of financial figures are released by Europe's central authorities, Portugal generally closes its eyes and blushes. The nation's economy is collapsing, it begs for handouts and dreads the latest austerity measures introduced by a hard-up government.

In one area of national interest, however, things could hardly be better. The Portuguese Superliga currently stands at the top of the growth-index of European football's domestic competitions.

At least it does according to the 2010/11 Uefa co-efficient, a points system that decides where national leagues rank in the hierarchy.

The top five are well-established: England's Premier League, then Spain, Germany, Italy and France.

But in nine months, performances by Portugal clubs in the European competitions, and specifically the Europa League - which plays its final tonight in Dublin - have earned more points than those from any other country.

The French are worried. Much more of this and their Championnat would lose its top-five status. Porto, the favourites tonight against Sporting Braga, have for a long time stubbornly resisted the economic law that says Europe's elite competitions are the preserve of clubs from wealthier states. They buy well, create stars and sell them dearly.

Porto won the Uefa Cup in 2003 and the Champions League in 2004. Under the command of a novice coach, Andre Villas-Boas, Porto have dominated the Superliga this season, wrapping up the title without losing a single match.

Their journey toward Dublin took them as far afield as Moscow, Sofia and Istanbul and included wins over strong Spanish teams such as Sevilla and Villarreal. Porto ran up a startling 5-1 home victory against the latter side in the Europa League semi-finals.

Villas-Boas, appointed last summer, talks "of the biggest challenge" of his career. Others talk of him as a future coach of Juventus or Chelsea. In the lead-up to the showdown with Braga, he allowed himself a moment of whimsical reflection on how far he has come, so quickly.

He recalled how he had watched Porto's 1987 European Cup triumph on his grandparents' television. He was nine years old. There you have it: Villas-Boas is only 33, young enough to be playing, except that he never was much of a footballer, which is why he devoted himself so young to the sport's theory.

And so determinedly. Villas-Boas came into professional football after engaging the former Porto coach, the late Sir Bobby Robson - who lived near the teenaged Villas-Boas - in conversation in the mid-1990s about Porto, and football.

One such dialogue Villas-Boas recalled seems especially resonant today. He asked Robson why he was not selecting the elegant striker Domingos more often.

"Domingos was a player with a very distinct style, very creative and quite different from the typical forwards you see in the faster, modern game," Villas-Boas remembered.

Robson and he had a detailed discussion about the enigmatic player.

Later, Robson would give the young enthusiast advice on coaching courses in Britain. By his early 20s Villas-Boas was part of the staff working for another ambitious young Portuguese, Jose Mourinho, at Porto, then at Chelsea, then at Inter Milan.

Hence a tendency to caricaturise Villas-Boas as "Mini-Mou", or "Special Two". He acknowledges that working under Mourinho shaped his own approaches, but dislikes being thought a clone.

"This Porto are a team who like to take the initiative," he said, and it is true that Villas-Boas has not acquired a reputation, as Mourinho, has, for crabby, defensive tactics.

In that he has certainly been aided at Porto by strikers as prolific as the Brazilian Hulk - who has a sledgehammer for a left foot and is the leading scorer in Portuguese domestic football with 23 goals - and Radamel Falcao, the Colombian who has set a record in the Uefa Cup/Europa League with his 17 strikes.

The South American pair are powerful and quick. Unlike, say, the feathery Domingos, of whom Villas-Boas spoke so engagingly with Robson when he was barely more than an inquisitive child.

"I don't know how a player like Domingos, who was a lovely dribbler, would fit into the modern game," Villas-Boas said last week.

Naturally, he knows exactly where Domingos fits into today's modern game. He is Domingos Paciencia, now 42, and coach of Braga, the team standing between Porto's young manager and a first major European prize.

sports@thenational.ae

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