Andre Villas-Boas loves Marseille and the French giants’ supporters love him for ending their seven-year absence from the Champions League, in which they host Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City this week.
There was a once a time, a decade ago now, when “AVB” and Pep were the two most coveted coaches in Europe, both winning European trophies in the same 2010/11 season in charge of Porto and Barcelona respectively.
The young Villas-Boas shared some of the same reference points as Guardiola. Both crossed paths with Jose Mourinho in the early years of his career and Bobby Robson was a mentor to both, giving a young Villas-Boas work in the scouting department at Porto and then making Pep a central part of his team at Barcelona.
“AVB” was just 33 in 2011 when, as Guardiola led Barcelona to the Champions League, he won four trophies with Porto including the Europa League.
His career did not quite scale the expected heights after that. He left for Chelsea but did not last the season, and by the time the London club beat Guardiola’s Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals en route to winning the trophy, Roberto di Matteo was in charge.
Their paths did not cross then, but they will now, with Villas-Boas hoping to outfox Guardiola and damage City’s European prospects.
Marseille are up against it after losing 1-0 to Olympiakos last week, while City beat Porto. But the OM coach is unlikely to have changed the optimistic outlook with which he came into the campaign.
“We can compete in this group. We can’t be too down after being in Pot Four when the draw was made,” Villas-Boas told AFP last week.
“I like to aim high. We dreamt of being in this competition, so now we are targeting the last 16.”
For Marseille being in the Champions League is a huge deal.
France’s best-supported club remains the only Ligue 1 team ever to have won the competition, in 1993.
Although they reached the Europa League final in 2018, OM had been absent from the Champions League for seven years before Villas-Boas led them back there thanks to a second-place finish in the last, curtailed Ligue 1 campaign.
– Emotional attachment –
Appointed in 2019 to return to coaching in Europe, three years after leaving Zenit Saint-Petersburg for China, “AVB” quickly won over the club’s fans and they were horrified when he nearly walked away in the close season.
Unhappy at seeing sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta depart, Villas-Boas threatened to go too before being persuaded to stay for the final year of his contract.
Now he could be prepared to extend that deal.
“In February we can talk. The January transfer window will have closed and we will more or less be able to see where we stand,” he told AFP.
“The most important thing is that I am very happy here. I am emotionally attached to this club, to its history, the players who have played here, its impact in Europe. It’s magnificent.”
Villas-Boas has restored pride to Marseille, and with players like Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin, there is hope they can enjoy more success this season. Marseille have already beaten PSG for the first time in nine years.
It will nevertheless not be the same against City without the presence of 60,000 fans at the Velodrome, one of Europe’s most spine-tingling atmospheres.
Instead the health crisis means the stadium will be empty on Tuesday.
“The biggest disappointment for us is to return to this competition and find ourselves — with OM’s European history, two Champions League finals, three finals in the UEFA Cup or Europa League — playing without our fans, when the fervour of the supporters is sort of the thing that defines OM,” Villas-Boas said.
“We were not able to celebrate qualifying because of the times we are in, and now we can’t experience it with our supporters. That is tough.”