Andre Villas-Boas’s Zenit St Petersburg sit top of the Russian Premier League at present, but it’s how the Russian giants fare in Europe that will probably determine how well he can repair his battered reputation.
Two miserable years in England saw AVB’s standing as the bright young managerial thing of European football take quite a beating. But the Zenit hierarchy have been prepared to look past that in the hope he can rediscover the magic that saw him lead Porto to a domestic league and cup double and Europa League triumph in 2010/11 at the age of just 32.
The early signs have been good. Fears that AVB would struggle with a Zenit dressing room riven with division were quickly allayed. Taking control back in March after the reign of predecessor Luciano Spalletti had collapsed under the strain of a squad at odds with itself, AVB led a startling recovery.
Zenit won seven on the bounce to take them back to the top of the table at the tail end of the season, only for them to surprisingly lose the second last match of the season at home to Dynamo Moscow and allow rivals CSKA Moscow nick the title.
But Zenit have come back strongly from that disappointment this term. Saturday’s hard fought 2-2 draw at Krasnodar leaves them two points clear of the champions and unbeaten in their first ten league games.
Toke Theilade of the excellent Russian Football News website believes that AVB’s work in motivating the squad and healing the divisions should not be underestimated. Theilade admits there were doubts amongst the fans after Villas-Boas’s struggled with the strong characters in the Stamford Bridge dressing room –
I recall one fan saying “Great, we have a coach for Hulk (AVB came strongly recommended by the Brazilian who was part of his all-conquering Porto side). Now we just need a coach for the rest of the team.
Ironically, the manager’s work with the Brazilian striker has been central to the Zenit revival. According to Theilade, Villas Boas has gotten Hulk more involved and the goals and assists are flowing once again.
Zenit had huge problems with scoring last season, but they have become an attacking machine since AVB took over. Now they dominate most games and create lots of chances, scoring 28 goals in their first 10 games.
Hulk and impressive Venezuelan striker Rondon have been taking full advantage, accounting for 16 of Zenit’s goals in the league.
Critically, the Russians are also looking a much tougher prospect defensively. Six goals conceded in their ten league outings and two clean sheets in the Champions League underline the point. The signings of Javi Garcia (a €16 million signing from Manchester City) and Argentinean centre half Ezequiel Garay (who cost another €15 million from Benfica) have been “just what Zenit needed,” says Theilade.
They had been in desperate need of a good holding midfielder since the controversial sale of Igor Denisov, which they now have, and Garay has really added defensive stability.
Zenit’s owners will no doubt be pleased with how Villas-Boas has turned things round, but according to Theilade, they are looking beyond Russia and to the Portuguese for glory.
Gazprom haven’t paid out big sums for the likes of Garay, Hulk and Witsel just to win the domestic title. There is no doubt AVB has been hired to bring Zenit into the European club elite.
Villas-Boas says the club’s aim in the Champions League this season is to reach the quarter finals. If he can achieve that and drive Zenit to the Russian title, then AVB will have gone a long way to repairing the damage of the London years.