Zenit’s 2-0 win at home to Volga last Saturday left the table-toppers within touching distance of regaining their Russian crown, and was the sixth Premier League victory in a row for new coach Andre Villas-Boas. Kate Partridge looks at the rise, fall and rise again of AVB.
Few issues seem to divide pundits more than assessing the merits of manager Andre Villas-Boas. At 36, the former protégé of both Sir Bobby Robson and Jose Mourinho is already on his sixth top job in a short but eventful career.
Let’s recap. Sir Bobby Robson helped the ambitious bilingual teen gain his first coaching badges at just 17. A stint in charge of the British Virgin Islands followed at 21. Then AVB returned to his native Portugal and became assistant coach to Jose Mourinho at Porto, following the Special One to Chelsea and Inter Milan.
Going solo in 2009, he joined Academica, then winless and bottom in Portugal’s top flight. A creditable eleventh-placed finish and late League Cup semi-final exit to Porto ensured his move back to said giants to take full charge in June 2010.
The winning habit became a record run. After two months, his side beat Benfica 2-0 to win the Supercup. The Dragoes then finished the season unbeaten, only the third time it had been done in Primeira Liga history, winning the title by 21 points and conceding only 16 goals.
At 33, AVB was the third-youngest coach to have won the domestic league. He also became the youngest-ever manager to win a European competition, crowning a stunning maiden campaign by lifting the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League to complete a remarkable treble.
Just as Mourinho’s Champions League triumph with Porto had prompted a move to Chelsea, in June 2011 AVB signed up for three years at Stamford Bridge. Unfortunately, that relationship was not the love affair enjoyed by his mentor.
The Blues slipped to their first league defeat of the season – and AVB’s first in 39 matches – in mid-September, 3-1 at Manchester United. Others followed. Derby defeats to QPR and Arsenal, a league loss and League Cup quarter-final exit against Liverpool, and a February upset by Everton that saw Chelsea drop out of the top four. A match inquest was followed by a player revolt in front of chairman Roman Abramovich. By Valentine’s Day, the romance was over.
A 3-1 Champions League defeat to Napoli with three key players on the bench led to tactical queries from the board. And on March 3, the death knell was sounded by a 1-0 loss to now infamous coach-slayers, West Bromwich Albion. Gallingly for AVB, caretaker Roberto di Matteo led the Blues to their maiden Champions League glory.
Yet if Chelsea was a flop, redemption lay with Tottenham. In July 2013, AVB replaced Harry Redknapp on a three-year deal as Spurs eyed a top-four finish. This time he started shakily, finally tasting victory in mid-September with a 3-1 win at Reading. However, he did triumph at Old Trafford – the first Spurs manager to do so for 23 years – with a 3-2 win over Manchester United, silencing some of the increasing doubters.
November’s 5-2 derby defeat at Arsenal stung, but December saw convincing victories, up to third place, and Manager of the Month – an award he regained in February, after guiding Tottenham to the last 16 of the Europa League, with Gareth Bale in inspired form. But the star winger’s last-day winner against Sunderland could not stop Spurs being pipped to fourth by Arsenal.
The club record finish of 72 points was the highest by any side not to qualify for the Champions League. Paris St. Germain and Real Madrid came calling but AVB rejected them to spend an unprecedented second season with the same club. Yet he was to do it without Bale, who did go to Madrid for a world-record £85.3m.
Seven replacement signings failed to match the impact of one Welshman – with reports claiming AVB had wanted only three of them. Rumours of tension between the board, coach and players abounded. By December, Spurs were seventh following a 6-0 hammering at Manchester City, and then a 5-0 home humiliation by Liverpool that left the coach clearing his desk.
Despite concerns about his man-management skills, AVB left White Hart Lane with the highest percentage of league wins by any Tottenham manager in the Premier League era. He had also led Spurs to victory in all six of their Europa League group games. (Untried replacement Tim Sherwood has similarly failed to stop occasional heavy defeats or steer the North London side to the top four).
This March, AVB was in Russia, signing a two-year contract with Zenit St. Petersburg – his fifth club in less than five years. He replaced the sacked Luciano Spalletti after the second leg of the Champions League round of 16 at Borussia Dortmund, which Zenit won 2-1 but went out 5-4 on aggregate.
Many Russians were sceptical, citing AVB’s failure in England. But so far, so good. After six wins from six games in charge, Zenit are top by a point from Lokomotiv and on course to regain the title they ceded last season to CSKA.
Critics may say AVB’s victories have come against teams outside the top five and the real challenge will be the three-game run-in, including matches against title rivals Loko and Dynamo. Yet those six wins also include a 6-2 romp over former champions Rubin, and a 4-1 drubbing of sixth-placed Krasnodar.
Brazil and former Porto winger Hulk tops the goalscoring chart on 16, with Portugal midfielder Danny and Venezuela striker Jose Rondon adding a respective 12 and 11. Zenit no longer rely on the poaching prowess of Aleksandr Kerzhakov and the cautious style established under Dick Advocaat and honed by Spalletti.
The former Roma coach was axed on March 11 after four years in charge. His demise followed a goalless home draw with strugglers Tom, leaving Zenit two points behind leaders Loko and with one win in their last seven Premier League games. The St. Petersburg side had also lost the home leg against Dortmund 4-2, as the Russian giants once again stuttered in Europe.
The first two seasons under Spalletti had been laced with success, winning the league twice in a row, as well as the Cup and Super Cup. He was also the first manager to lead Zenit into the knock-out stages of the Champions League.
But lurking in the background was the shadow of the ongoing failure to get beyond the round of 16, as well as the Italian’s inability to unite the dressing room factions that evolved from the high-profile signings of Porto’s Hulk and Benfica’s Axel Witsel in September 2012 for a record £64m – and on high wages.
Outspoken captain Igor Denisov went on pay strike and was punished with two months in the reserves. Kerzhakov also received a rap for an unclear dispute. Then followed the farcical “Birthday-gate” rumours. Some Russian players went to Kerzhakov’s 30th party; other foreign stars reportedly attended Danny Alves’ 31st; while Russia captain Roman Shirokov allegedly rubbished Spalletti’s claim that he had gone to Kerzhakov’s do by suggesting the coach must have worn a “Helm of Darkness”.
The following March, Zenit were knocked out of the Europa League last 16 by Basel, with Shirokov quarrelling with Hulk over who should take an 86th-minute penalty, missing it and then blaming the Brazilian for spoiling his concentration. Worse, CSKA went on to win the Premier League title. Spalletti tried to reassert himself. Denisov was sold to Anzhi, who promptly slashed their budget and offloaded him to Dynamo.
This season, Russia right-back Aleksandr Anyukov, who resigned from the captaincy two years ago, barely featured, while Vladimir Bystrov was loaned to Anzhi. Talk abounds that Shirokov blamed the coach for ruining Zenit’s spirit and style, which escalated into a training camp spat in Israel this January, and the midfielder returning home for “medical treatment”. The 32-year-old has since been shipped out on loan to Krasnodar.
Other reports claim Spalletti had considered resigning in December, but the board refused to let him. Consequently the chance to bed in a new coach during the winter break was lost, and a lacklustre Zenit went on to suffer their European loss to Dortmund. When the domestic league resumed, Zenit had to thank young Russia ‘keeper Yuri Lodygin for their point at home to Tom.
In 2009, Advocaat had been sacked after losing 2-0 at home to the Tomsk side. In 2014, a goalless draw was enough for the club’s (and the Champions League’s) gas giant backers Gazprom to drop Spalletti. Warily, they turned to Villas-Boas, the former Porto boss whom Hulk had helped coax to Russia.
If AVB wanted to prove he could conquer without dividing as well as once again triumph in Europe, he had chosen a rift-riddled club to heal that was rich and clamouring for their maiden Champions League trophy.
Six wins later, and the Portuguese is now being touted as the next Barcelona manager. Three more wins and Zenit are guaranteed champions. Perhaps then AVB might unite the pundits as well as his players.