Europa League

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Villas-Boas remains ideal fit for Spurs

FOX Soccer News: Preview of Thursday’s UEFA Europa League matches.
FOX Soccer News: Preview of Thursday’s UEFA Europa League matches.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

A year ago this week, Andre-Villas Boas was dismissed as manager of Chelsea. Even those who had sympathy with him agreed he had tried to change things too quickly and wondered whether his intense, technocratic approach would ever work with players brought up in the English system.

The same week, Tottenham Hotspur lost 1-0 to Everton, a third straight defeat, and one that allowed Arsenal, fourth in the Premier League table, to close to within to within a point of Tottenham Hotspur in third. The assumption had been that after the Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp was cleared on tax evasion charges, the club would kick on to a glorious finale to the season, perhaps even challenging for the title and certainly obliterating the statistic that it hadn’t finished above Arsenal since 1995.

But the same day Redknapp was cleared, Fabio Capello resigned as England manager. The speculation that Redknapp would take the national job seemed to destabilize Spurs and they capitulated, finishing fourth. Redknapp was ousted at the end of the season – the possibility of him taking the England job having led to Spurs considering alternatives and made him seem less irreplaceable – and Villas-Boas appointed.

It seemed a huge gamble. Even with the late-season slump in form, Redknapp’s stock was high – and he was popular with journalists who warmed to his no-nonsense approach, his friendliness and his quips. Villas-Boas was regarded by many as a man out of his depth – “a sham Mourinho” as one newspaper put it – while his love of describing training drills in detail and his use of a discourse somewhere between motivational business guru and the coaching manual meant he was rather less fun in press-conferences. Tottenham was regarded as make or break for him – at least in terms of the Premier League.

It’s hard to imagine how he could have done better. Chelsea, with its strong cabal of conservative senior players, is a peculiarly difficult club to manage. Overseeing the overhaul of that squad, something that was desperately necessary, was a herculean task, and will soon claim its second managerial victim since Villas-Boas’s departure. Yet Villas-Boas learned from the experience. Perceived as cold and distant there, he made a point on arriving at Tottenham of finding out about players’ interests so he could chat to them about matters other than football. He apparently regularly texts jokes to players.

STRIDE FOR STRIDE

Check out the best shots from the Europa League's round of 32 action.

When he arrived, Villa-Boas decided he had no place in his squad for Michael Dawson, reasoning that Younes Kaboul, Jan Vertonghen, William Gallas and Steven Caulker were more than enough cover at centre-back. A fee was agreed to sell Dawson to QPR. That fell through, which could have left a demotivated player sulking on the fringes, poisoning the atmosphere. Villas-Boas had been open enough and honest enough with Dawson, though, that there was no ill-feeling – which says much as well for Dawson’s maturity – and he was reintegrated, given his opportunity by Villas-Boas’s open-mindedness and an injury to Kaboul. On Sunday, Dawson was captain as Spurs beat Arsenal.

The transition from Brad Friedel to Hugo Lloris also could have been awkward. The American, after all, had started the season superbly – but he is 41 and there was a need to look beyond him. Besides which, Friedel is primarily a reactive keeper, one who stays deep and responds to shots; Villas-Boas prefers to play with a high line, and that requires a keeper comfortable at leaving his goal and mopping up behind the back four. Friedel’s form allowed Lloris to adapt slowly – he worked particularly on dealing with crosses under pressure, something at which he is so adept it’s hard to believe it was ever a problem. Eventually, the younger man took over with Friedel keeping his place for Europa League ties.

The warmth of Spurs players towards Villas-Boas is obvious. Gareth Bale, a player who has blossomed over the past few months scored his brilliant last-minute winner against West Ham United, raced to the bench so the first person he hugged in celebration was his manager. Tottenham now is unbeaten in 12 league games, its best run since 1984-85. It stands seven points clear of Arsenal and two clear of Chelsea. Villas-Boas is too smart to speak of vindication but that is what seems to be being played out.

Thursday’s Europa League game against Inter Milan (live, FOX Soccer, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET) evokes memories of arguably Redknapp’s finest hour at Spurs. Two seasons ago in the Champions League group stage, Spurs found themselves 4-0 down at half time. Bale scored a second-half hat-trick to erase some of the embarrassment and then, in the game back at White Hart Lane, he eviscerated Maicon in a thrilling 3-1 win. That night probably stands as a high for Tottenham in the past two decades, a moment when it seemed they were on the brink of joining the European elite.

Villas-Boas, who won the Europa League with FCPorto, has taken the competition seriously from the start. With Inter rocking domestically, as forward Antonio Cassano has had a falling out with another teammate, this could be the perfect moment for Villas-Boas to reawaken those ambitions.

There are two other Premier League clubs in action on Thursday. Newcastle travel to Moscow to face Anzhi Makhachkala (live FOX Soccer Plus, Thursday, 12 p.m. ET), who have a perfect record in home European ties, while Chelsea meet the Romania league leaders Steaua in Bucharest (live, FOX Soccer, Thursday, 1 p.m. ET). Benfica host Bordeaux (live, FOX Soccer Plus, 3 p.m. ET) and Stuttgart face Lazio in the pick of the other last-16 ties, with Rubin, conquerors of the defending champions Atletico Madrid, away to the last remaining Spanish representatives, Levante. All the Europa League games are available for streaming on FOX Soccer 2GO.

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