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Tottenham And The Art of Villas-Boas
His premature exit from Chelsea led many to write him off. But Andre Villas-Boas - the poor man's Mourinho - seems to have found redemption at crosstown rivals Spurs.
Tottenham Hotspur's season in Europe looked to be hanging in balance after they had to fight back from two goals down against Basel in the Europa League quarterfinal first leg. Injury to Gareth Bale, and the news that their talisman would be out for a fortnight in this crucial phase of the season soured things further. Was this another of those familiar scenarios that Spurs seemed to find themselves in in this part of the year? One man knows the feeling too well.
In March, when Spurs scraped past Inter Milan after 120 crazy minutes in their Europa League Round of 16 second leg at the San Siro, for Andre Villas-Boas, or 'AVB', the scrappy and maybe even lucky victory may have meant so much more. Today, as his young and attacking team faces yet another uphill battle to prove their credentials in Europe, having convinced the skeptics at home (before they hosted Basel, they returned to third sport in the Premiership with a 2-1 win over fellow-stylists Swansea), AVB, now more than ever, needs to pull the rabbits out of the hat. His mind will be going back to Inter.
It was at Inter in 2009 that the then 32-year-old decided that he had to leave the nest and learn to fly. Villas-Boas was a key member of fellow Portuguese Jose Mourinho's backroom staff at Chelsea and followed him to Inter but after 18 months in the black and blue half of Milan, the 'scout' (as Villas-Boas was known as to the English media during his time at Chelsea) felt it was time to step out of the shadow of The Special One and make a name for himself.
His decision to part ways with Mourinho left wounds that reportedly haven't healed to this day (AVB was a candidate for the Inter job in 2012 but was reportedly overlooked after Mourinho suggested against it) and Villas-Boas would come to learn that the shadow of the Special One would continue to follow him.
What followed were short yet successful spells at Portuguese clubs Academica (2009-10 ) and subsequently Porto (2010-11 ) where he won a treble (Portuguese League, Cup and Europa League)in his first (and till-date only) full season in charge. AVB's Porto side went unbeaten in the league and at 33 he also became the youngest manager to win a UEFA title with the Europa League which he dedicated to the man who set him on his path, former England manager Sir Bobby Robson.
It was Robson who first recognized a teenage AVB's footballing acumen when he was his neighbour and manager at Porto, encouraging him to earn his coaching licenses. Yet it is Mourinho who is the first manager people associate with AVB. His success at Porto unsurprisingly saw the world draw comparisons with his compatriot and therefore it was almost as if he had a point to prove when, like Mourinho, he left Porto for Chelsea at the start of the 2011-12 season.
His return to West London and Chelsea, where he was chief of opposition scouting under Mourinho, saw him dubbed 'mini Mourinho' by the English media. Despite Mourinho's tremendous success at the club, it was a nickname he didn't particularly like and set out to prove he was his own man. That however, would prove to be far from simple. As manager of Chelsea, AVB was given the responsibility of overseeing a smooth transition and building a side for the future. Unfortunately for him, at a club like Chelsea that had to be achieved by playing attractive football and without compromising on trophies to satisfy owner Roman Abramovich.
AVB's drive, ambition and possibly the opportunity of doing something even Mourinho couldn't do at Chelsea (Mourinho's style of play was at times criticized as being defensive and not to Abramovich's taste) may have tempted him to take the poisoned chalice but eight months in he realized that he may have bitten off more than he could chew. Chelsea had slipped to sixth in the Premier League and AVB's signature disappointed crouch on the touchline became far too common a sight. A 3-1 defeat away at Napoli in the Champions League round of 16, followed by a loss to West Bromwich Albion, was enough for the Russian owner to pull the plug on the AVB revolution.
A number of Chelsea fans were saddened by his dismissal but their Champions League triumph at the end of the season under AVB's first team coach, Roberto di Matteo, washed away those feelings and he was almost a forgotten figure at the club. What a change for someone who at the start of the season was one of the most sought-after managers in Europe.
For his part, AVB's tenure at Chelsea was far from spotless. He was unable to win over senior members of the squad (many of whom were of a similar age and found it hard to respect someone who was still a rookie in the game) and his poor treatment of them, possibly as a show of power, saw him lose the support of the dressing room completely.
After a row, Alex and Nicolas Anelka were reportedly banished to the reserves and were denied their first-team privileges. That was followed by a cold war with Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole (both didn't start the game in Napoli) which saw things reach boiling point after the Napoli loss and the players were said to have made their feelings quite clear. A week later, AVB was out of a job.
His man-management may have been a disaster but in his defence, he didn't receive the main thing he asked for - time. At Chelsea, AVB had pleaded for patience and admitted that as in the case of any team in transition, success would not be achieved overnight.
He inherited an aging squad (many of whom were part of Mourinho's side) that he needed to refresh and rebuild to suit his fast paced, pressurizing style of play. Time was all he asked for, time he didn't receive. The constant pressure of an axe hanging over his head may have forced him to fasttrack the change of guard in the dressing room and rub players the wrong way, which ultimately cost him his job.
As of today, Roberto di Matteo, the man who delivered the elusive Champions League, has also been sacked and interim manager Rafael Benitez is also on his way out come the end of the season, which leaves the club back where it started. The cries for Jose (Mourinho) to return and work his magic are all too obvious but there is a lingering feeling that they may have missed out on giving a dynamic, young manager a fair chance.
In North London, AVB may just be given that chance. Taking over as Tottenham Hotspur manager from Harry Redknapp, he is slowly but surely winning the confidence of a skeptical Spurs crowd that was disappointed to see Redknapp go. In the dressing room he is a far more accepted figure than he ever was at Chelsea. He has a younger squad that is more responsive to his style of play. He said that he has learnt from his mistakes at Chelsea and has taken efforts to work on his communication with his players.
He was shrewd in the transfer market and despite a slow start to the campaign, Spurs picked up momentum, going unbeaten in the league from December to March which saw them rise to third.
However, back-to-back defeats to Liverpool and Fulham saw them slip back to fourth with Chelsea leapfrogging them and North London rivals, Arsenal breathing down their necks in fifth.
It is almost deja-vu for Spurs who lost out on a Champions League spot last season after collapsing towards the end. AVB has the chance to put those ghosts to bed by becoming the first Spurs manager since 1995 to help them finish above the Gunners.
AVB may be spurred on by the chance to pip Chelsea to third place and should Spurs somehow get past Basel (with or without Bale) in the second leg in Switzerland, a grudge clash with Chelsea may well await them.
AVB had said that he would "never accept" Abramovich's decision to sack him. He still believes he was given a raw deal at Chelsea. With Spurs he has a chance to prove it - with or without his talisman, Gareth Bale.
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