Villas-Boas makes Porto the toast of Portugal again
Porto suffered a blow, both to their self-esteem and coffers, when their four-year reign as Portuguese champions was ended by a resurgent Benfica last season.
Not only did they give up their title, they missed out on Champions League football for the first time since the 2002/03 campaign, confined instead to the relative backwaters of the Europa League.
Failing to make Europe's premier club competition cost Porto at least £8.5m (10m euros) - Braga have pocketed £11.6m (13.6m euros), Benfica £9.5m (11.1m euros) while the Europa League has only added £1.3m (1.6m euros) to the Porto bank account - and probably two key players as both Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles have both departed after advertising the fact that they were far from from happy at the club.
However, under new coach Andre Villas-Boas, the 2004 champions of Europe are grabbing the headlines again for all the right reasons, having gone unbeaten in 25 games in all competitions this season.
The 33-year-old Villas-Boas, currently the Portuguese first division's youngest coach, appears to be on a similar trajectory to mentor and former Porto boss Jose Mourinho.
Can Villas-Boas emulate the achievements of Jose Mourinho? Photo: Getty Images
Villas-Boas was part of Mourinho's backroom team at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan before moving from under the Special One's wing and taking over the reins at modest Academica - his first proper frontline job if you disregard a brief stint in his early 20s as coach of the British Virgin Islands - a couple of months into last season.
On paper, 11th place in a 16-team league does not look much to shout about. But when you consider Academica were looking like certain relegation candidates, lying at the bottom of the table and without a win to their name before the arrival of Villas-Boas, his success raised plenty of eyebrows in Portugal and brought him to the attention of the Porto president Pinto da Costa.
What seems to make Villas-Boas special is that he has many of the same attributes of Mourinho. He has an obsession for researching the opposition and started off producing scouting reports for then Porto boss Bobby Robson in the 1990s while still a teenager. Famously, while at Stamford Bridge, his scouting reports included personalised DVDs for each player, outlining their opposite number's strengths and weaknesses.
Villas-Boas has also shown himself to be a superb psychologist. The Dragoes coach has managed to convince, and sound sincere even to the sceptics, that everyone is special at Porto, allowing him to get the best out of both the established first-teamers and fringe players, such as summer signing James Rodriguez.
"Every player in the squad is an important player. They all have a place," said Villas-Boas last week. "I have praised both Andre Castro and Ukra (Andre Monteiro) publicly and privately. I don't want to lose them. James has incredible potential and I intend to make him realise it. He will have opportunities (in the Portuguese Cup and Europa League) against Juventude Evora and Sofia, which will be good opportunities for him and they won't be his last, that's for sure."
James responded to the public pat on the back with two outstanding games, scoring Porto's final goal in their 3-1 win over CSKA Sofia in the Europa League on Wednesday.
A 4-0 win over third division side Juventude de Evora in the Portuguese Cup on Saturday also set a club record of 34 unbeaten matches in all competitions, taking into account the end of last season. It consigned to history the previous best run, achieved when Mourinho was at the helm.
Ever since their 5-0 thrashing of current champions Benfica in November - after which Villas-Boas publicly tore apart the tactics of his opposite number Jorge Jesus and told him how and why Benfica had been beaten - talk has been rampant about the possibility of Porto going through the season undefeated, at least in the league.
Mourinho won the Europa League's predecessor, the Uefa Cup, in his first season in charge and Porto are among the favourites to take this season's trophy. So is the apprentice set to emulate his master?
I must confess, I am a little bit hesitant to applaud Villas-Boas too loudly. I am well aware that I praised Porto back in February only for them to endure a two-month slump that saw them slip out of contention in the Portuguese title race and crash out of the Champions League following a 5-0 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. However, this season may be a little different.
Striker Hulk may not get the recognition were he playing in England, Spain or Italy but he remains a world-class finisher, currently topping the league charts with 12 goals.
He has been ably supported up front by Colombian international Falcao, who has seven goals. So highly rated is Falcao, who joined Porto from Argentine side River Plate for £4.7m (5.5m euros) in the summer of 2009, that there have been reports in both the Spanish and Portuguese media in recent days that he could be on his way across the border next summer if a Spanish club - Atletico Madrid get mentioned a lot in this context - make da Pinto an offer he cannot refuse.
After a lacklustre final season at Sporting and following his acrimonious transfer from the club where he started his professional career, Joao Moutinho is back to form and often sees plenty of action on the wings, in contrast to his previous role as a central midfielder.
Helton has impressed between the posts for Porto. Photo: AFP
Perhaps the big difference for Porto has been the goalkeeper. The previously error-prone and inconsistent Helton has been outstanding and putting up a very strong case for a recall to the Brazilian side after missing out on the World Cup. His heroics have meant Porto have conceded goals in only four of their 13 league games this season.
Despite their rather lacklustre Champions League campaign, Benfica have not yet thrown in the towel domestically but their away form this season - they have lost as many games as they have won - has meant they have not been able to keep up with Porto and are currently eight points adrift in second place.
Last season's svengali, Jesus - JJ to many Benfica supporters - looked a rather haunted figure on the sidelines during last week's Champions League 2-1 defeat at home to Schalke. He still has the support of Benfica president Luis Felipe Vieira but few pundits dare to speculate for how much longer.
If Benfica fans feel a bit despondent about the way this season is going, then they can always cast their mind back to the golden era of the 1960s. There have been plenty of reminders of that period in recent days as Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of Eusebio's arrival on Portuguese soil, having signed for the Eagles from his local club in Mozambique, Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques.
Eusebio was arguably the first player from sub-Saharan Africa to make an impact on European club football, having collected a long list of honours, including the 1965 European Footballer of the Year award. In 1968, he became the first winner of the Golden Boot, a feat he repeated five years later.
British football fans with long memories or attentive parents know him for his displays at the 1966 World Cup, during which he scored nine goals. But at Benfica he is still referred to in hallowed terms for helping the side to their 1961 and 1962 European Cup wins, scoring two goals in the latter, which was to be the last Portuguese triumph for 25 years. His domestic statistics still remain stunning. He was the top scorer in the Portuguese league seven times and helped Benfica to 11 titles between 1961 and 1975.
How Jesus and Benfica fans must wish they had a modern-day version of Eusebio now.
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