Not so long ago, Benfica manager Jorge Jesus was being labelled ‘The Special Two’. Though his career has taken rather a different trajectory from Jose Mourinho’s – he spent decades achieving minor miracles at small Portuguese clubs before Benfica finally gave him his big break – Jesus had constructed an aggressive, domineering side fizzing with pace, flair, and a ruthless streak which swept all before them on the domestic front. Yet Jesus’ Benfica have been overwhelmingly outclassed by a Porto team of whom precious little was expected before the season began.
After all, who was Andre Villas Boas? Having worked closely with Mourinho at Chelsea, the confidence (bordering on narcissism) of his predecessor had evidently rubbed off on him; denied a more senior role among Mourinho’s backroom staff, the young coach opted to go it alone, landing a job at lowly Academica, turning what was expected to be a relegation battle into the lofty heights of midtable mediocrity.
But whilst having worked with Mourinho is seen as something of a golden stamp of approval in Portugal, one decent season in charge of a small club does not a Porto manager make. Having sacked the mediocre Jesualdo Ferreira in the summer, president Pinto da Costa took a gamble.
Now, the comparisons with Mourinho are impossible to ignore, in spite of the young manager’s repeated denials of the similarities between them; both arrived at Porto having achieved success at a small club. Both built unstoppable machines from sides no better on paper than their rivals. Indeed, Villas Boas’ debut season has actually yielded more points than any one season Porto completed under Mourinho – and they may well go on to finish the season undefeated.
What Villas Boas has done is restore the ruthlessness to Porto, the sense that no matter what happens, they will get the result they need. It was the hallmark of the great Porto sides of the nineties, and it was repeated, briefly, under Mourinho. Villas Boas’ achievement is that, should the golden trio of Hulk, Falcao and Varela misfire, Porto’s defence will ensure that nothing is given away, that all it takes is one burst of pace from Hulk, one Falcao backheel, and a game will be put to bed.
Under Villas Boas, centre-back Rolando has evolved from the functional foil for the domineering Bruno Alves into a world-class leader who could play in any team in the world; Argentine international Otamendi has slotted in effortlessly alongside him (Villas Boas quickly nipped previous incumbent Maicon’s occasional lapses of concentration in the bud); left-back Alvaro Pereira has found a consistency he lacked under Jesualdo Ferreira, as has Sapunaru on the opposite flank.
This is a team which has nothing like the swagger of the Benfica team of last season. But then last-season’s Benfica was a flawed masterpiece, bursting with a limitless supply of creativity and running but too tactically limited to react to adverse situations against top opposition. On the other hand, the current Porto team is a sophisticated, flexible model whose flashes of brilliance in attack have a solid tactical basis.
Villas Boas – with typical Mourinho cattishness – claimed, after last night’s win at Benfica, that ‘it was proven who is the best team’. He does himself little justice. The Benfica players, on paper, are more than a match for the options at Villas Boas’ disposal. Luisao, Fabio Coentrao, Javi Garcia, Gaitan and Saviola or Jara would all have a place in the current Porto side; the difference is that Villas Boas has crafted a unit more efficient than anything that has been seen in Portugal for years.
The future will tell if comparisons are premature. As well as a juicy Cup Semi-Final against Benfica, the Europa League holds the promise of further success. A league and cup double and a decent European run (the signs so far on that front have been extremely positive) would only reinforce the idea that Portugal can claim two of the world’s best coaches of recent years.