Should Zenit St Petersburg go on and win the Russian Premier League in the next few weeks, which they should given their commanding position at the top of the table, it will represent an important step in the rehabilitation André Villa-Boas, although doubts about the young Portuguese manager’s ability will remain.
For many, including the fans and owners of Russia’s richest club, reclaiming the title for the first time since 2011/12 is the very least that was expected of AVB. And there’s no question that with the big Moscow clubs having had to scale back budgets and squads this term, the odds of a title win had shifted in his favour even before he’d unpacked his black mack.
But this is not to say that his likely success will be without merit. For one thing, he still had to meet that basic expectation – in a new and strange environment –where others had failed. And for another, he had to cope with the pressure that came from knowing that failure could have had a catastrophic impact on his efforts to rebuild his reputation after his ill-fated time with Chelsea and Spurs.
However, bringing the title back to the Petrovsky Stadium will not entirely erase this season’s disappointments on the European stage, where Zenit had high hopes of progress, or the growing disquiet over his overly conservative tactical approach to the game.
Zenit’s failure to emerge from what should have been a more than manageable Champions League group featuring Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco and Benfica was a major let down for the club.
While reclaiming the domestic title was a top priority, the Portuguese coach was brought in with a view to improving the club’s record at European level. Zenit’s subsequent run to the last 16 of the Europa League will have done little to take the edge off that disappointment.
The club’s hierarchy may be prepared to overlook the failure this time round, but next term, they are likely to take a less generous view.
The Portuguese manager has also been on the receiving end of growing criticism in the Russian media for the rather unpretty way in which Zenit have gone about their business. Zenit have scored 53 goals in their 26 league games – but 12 of those were scored in their first two fixtures.
Forty one goals in 24 league games isn’t the kind of return people expect of champions – and AVB’s increasingly negative tactics are raising questions in the national media. The seven 1-0 winning margins in their 18 league victories haven’t done much to inspire either. For many, such football is not befitting of such an expensively assembled squad.
AVB will no doubt argue that the ends will justify the means. But there’s little doubt his tactics are winning him few friends. Moreover, his spiky and often irascible persona has resulted in a deteriorating relationship with the influential media, club legends like Andre Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov (both of whom have become conspicuously peripheral figures) and sections of the Zenit fan base, problems that Russian football expert Toke Theilade of www.russianfootballnews.com believes may curtail his stay at the club.
While I’m convinced that AVB will be Zenit’s coach when the new season starts, I’m not sure he’ll be there when it ends. Obviously, how the club performs in next season’s Champions League will be important, but maybe even more important is the fact that he has developed the demeanour of a man who is already tired of Russia and the politics surrounding his team and the league.
His constant complaints about referees, opponents, pitches and conditions, which had been a source of amusement amongst reporters and fans, have gradually eaten away at his popularity. In fact, coming from a foreigner, his constant complaints are seen by some as an attack on Russia itself, with some fans and journalists appearing to take it personally.
With Villas Boas and Mother Russia apparently tiring of each other’s company, an exit, sooner rather than later, cannot be discounted. Marseilles have already been linked after the Bielsa revolution fell away since the winter.
And a title win in Russia – despite doubts about his man management and tactical approach – will doubtless see the list of suitors grow.