Pereira struggles to fit into big boots

THE script was written long in advance. It is one of the sadnesses of modern football that whenever a (relatively) small side does well, all the talk is not of their success but of where their members may go next.

So, after Porto had beaten Braga to win the Europa League in Dublin in May, with one of the most dully emphatic 1-0 wins you’re ever likely to see, the post-match press conference was dominated by speculation.

Could Porto keep together a side that had dropped just four points all season in winning the Portuguese league? Would a side that had the swagger of Champions League challengers ever actually get the chance to challenge for the Champions League? Could Andre Villas-Boas persuade Falcao, Hulk, Moutinho, Alvaro Pereira and Fredy Guarin to stay?

Falcao moved to Atletico Madrid but with the other big guns staying and the arrival of the Belgian midfielder Steven Defour, the three young Brazilians Kleber, Alex Sandro and Mateus Kelvin, and the exciting 18-year-old Argentinian forward Juan Iturbe, it could even be argued that Porto have a stronger squad this season.

The big difference, of course, is that Villas-Boas has gone, and with him has gone much of the team’s spark.

When Jose Mourinho left in 2004, Porto made a dreadful mess of the succession. Luigi Del Neri arrived, but was so unpopular among the players who remained that he was deposed before he’d even taken charge of a competitive game. Victor Fernandez was sacked in January the following year with the club third in the table, and his replacement, Jose Couceiro, lasted only until the end of the season.

Not surprisingly, Porto sought consistency this time round, and appointing from within, elevating Vitor Pereira from assistant to head coach, despite his lack of top-class coaching experience. Porto’s start to the season domestically has been decent, and they had dropped just four points before this weekend. Given the standards set last season, though, even that has caused concern. Porto twice had the lead in the superclassico against Benfica but only drew 2-2. A Villas-Boas side, it was widely said, would have closed out the game.

That may not be entirely fair. Villas-Boas’s Porto were clearly exceptional but their defending was done high up the pitch. They pressed hard, seeking to snuff out attacks before they had begun.

This is an improved Benfica too, energised by the arrival of the Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel, and they were able to put Porto under the sort of pressure they never faced last season. Now that might be because Porto’s pressing is not so good as it was — and in that regard it may be significant that the only member of the backroom staff Villas-Boas took with him to Chelsea was the fitness coach Jose Mario Rocha — or it may simply be that Benfica now represent a stiffer challenge. Similarly, while there is frustration at Porto’s moderate start to the Champions League group, Villas-Boas never faced the sustained quality of Zenit St Petersburg, Shakhtar Donetsk and an APOEL side playing above themselves.

That said, Pereira probably wasn’t wise to suggest it was an evenly matched group — after all, Porto, as the team that has qualified for the group stages more often than any team apart from Manchester United, are hardly on the same level as the Cypriot champions.

Similarly, the decision to select Kleber rather than Walter in the Champions League squad looks an error in retrospect.

Walter was given a public dressing-down by Villas-Boas about his weight last season and left out of the side for two months in which he trained ferociously hard, coming back far fitter and sharper.

Kleber, meanwhile, still looks very raw. In itself that is merely a miscalculation, but the problem is that it adds to the sense that this is essentially Villas-Boas’s side, and whenever Pereira is called on for an intervention, he muffs his lines.

Porto go to Nicosia tomorrow needing a win to go above APOEL in the group. They had the better of their meeting at the Dragao a fortnight ago but, as Moutinho admitted, they looked horribly out of sorts once APOEL had equalised.

Now that he’s moved on, it’s easy to claim everything would have been fine if Villas-Boas were still around, but until Pereira stamps his authority on the side, the comparisons will continue.

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