James Lawton: Andre Villas-Boas has learnt his lessons and is gunning for Arsène Wenger as Tottenham face Arsenal
In Bale he has the kind of player around whom a good coach is entitled to believe he can build a considerable empire
For a 35-year-old who never kicked a ball professionally, Andre Villas-Boas has compiled an astonishing number of those moments which tell a man he is destined always to be some kind of contender.
They have now come either side of the black hole known as Chelsea Football Club, from which he emerged last season severely bruised but a whole lot wealthier, and on Sunday afternoon it could be that he will be more at home than ever before in the upper echelons of the Premier League.
At Porto he was the boy prodigy of football management, leading his team to an unbeaten season, and if Chelsea, partly by his own hand, was a misadventure of grisly proportions, he is remaking himself with brilliant application at White Hart Lane.
He is demonstrably strong at a potentially broken place and had anyone needed evidence of this it surely came in what was arguably a flashpoint of vindication to exceed all those others. It was when Gareth Bale rushed into his coach’s embrace after scoring his latest stupendous goal.
At Stamford Bridge, Villas-Boas was lacerated deeply by suggestions that he had urged his players to include him in their goal celebrations.
That, rightly or wrongly, was taken as the last word in desperate self-promotion. However, there was only one reasonable interpretation of Bale’s gesture, especially when it was later underpinned by his assertion that his coach had been a significant help in refining a talent that is now widely valued more highly than any but those of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
This, you had to say, was something that took us to the heart of authentic coaching achievement, something quite separate from the good fortune of having the resources to buy your way to formidable team strength.
It showed us a glimpse of both the satisfaction and the exhilaration which comes when a teacher has taught and the pupil has learnt.
Of course, Bale is some pupil. He is, you have to believe, one of those with a tendency to have his hand up before the teacher has thought of the question. Because of this, some of Bale’s tribute to his coach, and especially that part of it which refers less favourably to his old mentor Harry Redknapp, probably has to be received with a degree of caution.
If Bale is growing in assurance, it could be that much of this has to do with the natural maturing of an outstandingly gifted player. Certainly, the Bale who has been poleaxing defences this season still bears an uncanny resemblance to the one Redknapp unleashed so dramatically on Rafa Benitez’s Internazionale and the shell-shocked Maicon a few years ago.
But that doesn’t really matter. A touch here, a nudge there, and Bale apparently believes that he has been given new insights in prosecuting a unique ability to eviscerate any defence. At the very least, in forging a warm relationship with a key player, it indicates that Villas-Boas has come out of his Chelsea ordeal with a restored confidence.
This, surely, is something that promises only fresh torment for the old master of the art, Arsène Wenger, when he takes his team to Tottenham under the shadow of exclusion from a place in next season’s Champions League. Indeed, tomorrow afternoon’s game might just represent one of the most dramatic sea changes not only in the football of north London but in all of the English game. This must bring huge optimism – and an equally large challenge – to Tottenham’s hard-headed chairman Daniel Levy. He has to brace himself for the pivotal decision over Bale. Does he make the £50m-plus sale to either Real Madrid or Barça or recognise in Bale not only the most arresting talent in a player here since the birth of George Best but the man who can carry his club into an entirely new dimension.
It is a bewitching prospect and one that can only be strengthened by the rapport developing between the coach and the player.
Such affinity with extraordinary talent was, of course, the foundation of Wenger’s success and after some of the horrors of this season, not least the brutal statement of superiority by Bayern Munich at the Emirates, another tour-de-force by the Welshman, and the inevitable celebration of the hero and the new mentor just a few yards away, will be still another assault on the Arsenal manager’s peace of mind.
Villas-Boas, though, cannot be expected to be too reticent after the trials which brought him so low at Stamford Bridge – and when the 5-2 ambush staged by Arsenal at the Emirates early in November suggested he might well be returning to that dark place of humiliation. Plainly, his nerve has held and if he seemed so out of touch at Stamford Bridge, now he looks like a man who has found a most favourable battleground. He has a strong squad, superbly enforced by the strength and drive of Mousa Dembélé, and in Bale he has the kind of player around whom a good coach is entitled to believe he can build a considerable empire.
In the worst of his times, Villas-Boas spoke with increasing desperation about the patience and support he needed for his Chelsea project. Now he speaks of his wonder about how “incredible” it is when the ball leaves the boot of Gareth Bale.
The greatest of coaches have never been slow to acknowledge such gifts and, who knows, with a little help from his friend AVB, the Welshman may just prove to be among their number.
Benitez has failed – bring on Mourinho
Whatever weird game Rafa Benitez has been playing recently, he now suggests he is back where he started.
Admittedly, it is not a pleasant place to be, but then he wasn’t led to it with a rifle prodding his back. No, he had a specific job of imposing some professional values for a few months in exchange for several millions of pounds.
If he could improve on the performance record of the man he supplanted, Roberto Di Matteo, so much the better. He couldn’t.
Relations between Benitez and his players are not much better, we are told, than those he has with the most vociferous of his Chelsea critics.
So what does Rafa do? He runs the team as best as he can before settling his affairs. What do Chelsea do? Ideally, draw up a whole new code of operating ethics. Failing that, they bring in Jose Mourinho, which is hardly the same thing but will be much more easily done and certainly with rather more gratifying results.
Kauto Star refused to comment
Where are the great men when you need them? The question is provoked by the astonishing verdict of Britain’s Eventing performance director that Kauto Star, the steeplechaser of so many of our dreams, will not have time to complete his dressage education in time for the Brazil Olympics in three years.
Unfortunately we can only guess at the irritation of the sublime horse, which would never have satisfied the late Ian Wooldridge, who for so many years graced the sports pages of the Daily Mail.
At another time of equine controversy, Wooldridge visited the great Dessie in his stables, retired to the local pub for a gin and tonic and then dashed off a full-page, prize-winning exclusive interview with the fabled grey.
The quotes were brilliant. Sadly, we can do no better than report a most indignant snort.
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