Tomorrow night the atmospheric Estadio da Luz will throb under the swell of a 65,000 sell-out, and Porto will seek to spoil the evening for all but 3,500 of them – the number of fans that will follow their team to Lisbon on what they hope is the road to history.
A victory at the home of Benfica would wrest back the title from their arch-rivals at the very venue where Porto's previous season fell apart on 20 December 2009. The 1-0 defeat was the least of Porto's regrets that night, with an infamous tunnel brawl that followed the match resulting in Cristian Sapunaru and Hulk being cited by the league's disciplinary commission. Sapunaru was packed off on loan to Dinamo Bucharest and Hulk missed 17 games through indefinite suspension before a March appeal reduced his ban to four months. Many joked that Benfica should forge extra championship winners medals for the home stewards the Porto pair had confronted.
Benfica are a proud and stylish side under coach Jorge Jesus and will resist the prospect of Porto's coronation on their turf, but their visitors' freshman coach has led his side on a bold and thrilling path this season. If any coach has the audacity to pull this one off, it is Andre Villas Boas.
His story bears repeated telling. Still only 33 years old and in his first season in charge of his hometown club, Villas Boas has swept all before him, easily surpassing the considerable expectations generated by his connections with Jose Mourinho. Mourinho put the young Villas Boas in charge of scouting future opponents when he took over at the Estadio do Dragao in early 2002, and later took his protégé to Chelsea with him before promoting him to assistant coach after the pair arrived in Serie A with Internazionale.
When Villas Boas, with no professional playing career of his own, left in October 2009 for his big break as a head coach with the Portuguese top-flight side Academica de Coimbra, Mourinho's long-time adviser Jorge Mendes brokered the move. The endorsement of Portuguese football's super-agent confirmed the young coach as the brightest of the country's rising stars. The move upset Mourinho and their relationship appears to have cooled. Academica were bottom when Villas Boas arrived, but he guided them to mid-table safety and to the League Cup semi-finals.
The way in which Villas Boas has shaped his Porto squad since his June arrival has shown an extraordinary self-confidence. After seeing captain Bruno Alves depart for Zenit St Petersburg in a €20m (£17.6m) move, it was the new coach himself who paved the way for the side's other stalwart, Raul Meireles, to move to Liverpool by excluding him from his plans, leaving him out as a "technical choice" at the dawn of the season.
Villas Boas had his own ideas about definitively rebuilding the side around Joao Moutinho, tempting the Sporting Lisbon captain to the Dragao in a controversial move that left then-Sporting president Jose Nuno Bettencourt decrying his former golden boy as a "rotten apple". Moutinho, closely watched by Barcelona and Everton in the past, has recovered from a career trough at his old club to regain his place in the Portugal side on the back of a stellar season.
The comparisons between Villas Boas and Mourinho may be obvious, but perhaps the most clear connection between them is on the pitch. Like Mourinho's Porto, the Villas Boas vintage is forged in the image of its leader. While his side's shape echoes the 4-3-3 of his mentor, Villas Boas's Porto are always on the front foot, snapping, pressing and bristling with youthful energy. The front trio of Hulk, Radamel Falcao and Silvestre Varela have scored 39 goals between them in the league alone.
While Villas Boas is also a forthright personality and expressive on the touchline – he was sent to the stands at Guimaraes in his 12th game in charge for arguing with the referee – there is little suggestion that he has a dictatorial side. His Academica players said that he would often ask them their opinions on his tactics. Like Mourinho, Villas Boas fosters a close bond with his players but unlike him, likes his players to break bread socially. "It was him who encouraged us to have lunch and dinner together. And he often paid the bill," Orlando, Villas Boas's captain at Academica, told the Portuguese magazine Sábado last year.
The man himself draws a different comparison. "I'm more a clone of Bobby Robson than Jose Mourinho. I have English ancestry [his late grandmother was from Manchester], a big nose and I like drinking wine," he grinned at his unveiling as Porto coach.
He needs no reminder of how much he owes to the late England manager. Villas Boas approached Robson when the Englishman was Porto coach in the mid-'90s, politely chiding him for dropping star striker Domingos Paciencia. Impressed by the tyro's knowledge, Robson invited Villas Boas to observe first-team training, which eventually led to him joining the club staff. At 17, Villas Boas was too young to be enrolled on an FA coaching course or its Scottish equivalent, so Robson pulled a few strings with Charles Hughes, the famous FA director of coaching, and the young Portuguese ended up doing his Uefa C badge at Lilleshall and did further work on it in Scotland, later shadowing George Burley at Robson's former club Ipswich Town.
Speaking flawless English, the teenager was popular in Britain. Jim Fleeting, the Scottish FA's director of football development, told the Portuguese football site Mais Futebol in November that "his methods and his perfectionism always impressed. He has a lot of friends and fans here in Scotland, because of his personality."
Villas Boas moved back to Portugual to work with Porto Under-19s before taking an unexpected first head coach's job with the British Virgin Islands national team at the age of 21 in 2000. The potential was clear.
That promise could reach fruition this weekend. It was against Benfica that Porto demonstrated that power in Portuguese football was shifting back north in November, trouncing the champions 5-0. The following week's win over Portimonense saw Villas Boas surpass Mourinho's best opening to a season – in 2003-04, when Porto went on to add the Champions League to their league crown. With a Europa League quarter-final against Spartak Moscow on the horizon, Villas Boas has the chance to ape the dual league and Uefa Cup victory that Mourinho chalked up in his first full season at the club.
It would take wins in all six of Porto's remaining league matches to equal the 2003-04 national record of 86 points, though with the Portuguese league cut from 18 to 16 teams in 2006, it would be achieved in four games fewer. Villas Boas will expect little less. "Porto's choice isn't just to satisfy a boy's dream," he said at his presentation as coach. "If we don't win the championship, I won't be here managing Porto next year." The local boy's pragmatism and ambition mean that even brazenly liberating the title from their rivals' lair promises to be a detail, rather than an apex, in what is shaping up to be an extraordinary career.
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Unai Emery (Valencia, age 39) Basque who spent most of his playing career in Segunda B. Began coaching in 2004 and led Lorca and Almeria to rare promotions. Moved to financially troubled Valencia in 2008 and has taken them to fourth in La Liga despite selling David Villa and David Silva. Tactically smart, believes in constant repetition on the training ground.
Stale Solbakken (FC Copenhagen, 43) Decent playing career, including World Cup appearances and a brief spell at Wimbledon. Retired after being pronounced clinically dead following a heart attack – but then moved into management. Drew with Barcelona in reaching last 16 of Champions League. Will become coach of his native Norway post-Euro2012.
Thomas Tuchel (Mainz, 37) After injury ended a part-time, lower-league career in his mid-20s he became a youth coach. Stepped up to coach Mainz in 2009 and not only kept them in the Bundesliga but steered team into an early-season lead this campaign. Keen tactician whose teams play a high-tempo, pressing game.