The young pretender Villas-Boas has master Fergie in his sights
When Alex Ferguson was appointed manager of Manchester United in November 1986, Andre Villas-Boas had celebrated his ninth birthday the previous month and was, by his own admission, too "in love" with his hometown team Porto to pay attention to the latest attempt by one of English football's faded giants to resurrect themselves.
Tomorrow at Old Trafford, Villas-Boas (33) will shake hands with Ferguson (69) before attempting to beat the old master. Whether he likes it or not, the issue of his relative youth will follow Villas-Boas around for some time yet and, it would be fair to say it will never be more significant than it will be tomorrow when he faces a man whose three sons are all older than Chelsea's Portuguese manager.
Yesterday, ahead of the game against United, Villas-Boas walked a difficult line between being respectful to Ferguson without being overtly deferential. Of course the old boy deserves great respect for his achievements, but no opposing manager should ever forget Ferguson is first and foremost an adversary, and a bloody ruthless one at that. It does not help your cause to bend at the knee.
Furthermore, every English manager of this era has grown up with Ferguson as the dominant force of the last 18 years and he looms large over all of them. But for Villas-Boas, schooled in a different environment, one in which life revolved around his childhood obsession, Porto, the same is not so true.
Subtly, in his briefing at Cobham yesterday, he put some distance between himself and Ferguson. Had he, for example, read 'Managing My Life', the Ferguson autobiography from 1999 that is the equivalent of a set-text for British managers? Villas-Boas said he had read a Ferguson book a long time ago, but he could not recall whether it was the official version or not.
How had he approached Ferguson in their first meeting since becoming Chelsea manager? As it happened, he replied, they bumped into each other outside the gents' toilet.
On that occasion the two men were in Switzerland for a UEFA coaches' congress. What had they talked about? Stoke City, of course, who were the hot topic of discussion among Europe's elite managers. "It was just because we were talking about introducing offsides for throw-ins," said Villas-Boas. "And there was another question about Stoke; I won't share it. I've already been to Stoke. I want the other guys (managers) to go through that."
Despite the fact he was only 15 years old when United won their first Premier League title in 1993, Villas-Boas has not grown up in a football culture that has been dominated by Ferguson and that is probably an advantage.
Villas-Boas is about as smart as they come. He speaks exemplary English, he has a finely-tuned antenna for the pitfalls certain questions disguise and demonstrates a keen eye for preparation.
He said he had read through Ferguson's early morning press conference yesterday so he could make his own mind up on what the United manager said and respond accordingly.
His former boss and sometime mentor, Jose Mourinho, has never entered into a dispute with Ferguson, at least not on the scale that he has with a long list of other adversaries throughout Europe.
The feeling was that, apart from preferring enemies that displayed vulnerability, Mourinho was also ensuring that, when the time came, he would have Ferguson's endorsement to succeed him at Old Trafford.
As for Villas-Boas, he said he would not rule out publicly standing up for his players in the future. "You can react in different ways, and tell different things to the players. The most important thing is for the players to have belief in the manager. Last year in Porto, I had my disagreements with the Benfica manager, which was normal when they were threatening to the title, but it had no effect on the title race."
It was intriguing that on the subject of Mourinho's occasional baiting of the likes of Arsene Wenger and Rafael Benitez, Villas-Boas said: "I don't feel it plays (sic) that much importance."
Although even that was heavily qualified with the assertion that he was not implying Mourinho, with all his success, had gone about the job in the wrong way. "Nothing I say here or do here will make the nature of the game change," Villas-Boas said, which was a direct contrast to the approach of Mourinho and, albeit less frequently, Ferguson.
If strong, understated confidence, a relentless work ethic and 12-hour days at the training ground were enough on their own to topple Ferguson then Villas-Boas would be there already.
But to make inroads into a title race that already looks as if it will come down to United or Manchester City will take something more. It will take brilliance, flair and inspiration and tomorrow's match will be the first big test of whether the Villas-Boas character possesses those elusive ingredients.
There is a major call to be made on the team, with the reintroduction of Frank Lampard to the starting XI by no means certain after his relegation to the bench against Bayer Leverkusen. John Terry's status as a starter is less in doubt, despite him sitting out Tuesday's game.
On team matters, Villas-Boas despairs of the way all issues come down to personalities, especially when talk comes back to Fernando Torres, but he is fighting a losing battle in that regard.
The story of English football is a story of its great figures, their triumphs and their failures, and Chelsea is rich ground for such drama. In a rare insight into his emotions, Villas-Boas showed that even he is not immune to that.
"I have to pick my team first, then the 18," he said. "When everybody is so good, you can almost become sentimental, but it takes a bit of my heart out."
These are the fundamental problems he wrestles with: the right team for the job, the capriciousness of form and fitness, the psychology of the superstar millionaires he manages. The rest of it, such as his public face and his dealings with the press, you suspect he regards as a distraction but knows that he has to do it and, that being the case, then he has to do it well.
Tomorrow will be two days short of the fourth anniversary of Mourinho's dramatic departure from Chelsea which itself came three days before a league game at Old Trafford. Villas-Boas left with him that evening, his last scouting dossier on United rendered redundant.
Four years on, the protege is back, an impressive, deep-thinking coach, mature beyond his years. Win tomorrow and Ferguson will be the latest who has to sit up and take notice. (© Independent News Service)