Ambitious Russian side Zenit St Petersburg on Tuesday named ex-Chelsea and Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas as their new manager, in a big name appointment as the club seeks to break through into the top ranks of European football. The club said in a statement that the 36-year-old Portuguese handler, who first made his name with Porto, will officially sign on for Zenit on March 20, taking over from Italian Luciano Spalletti, who was sacked last week.
He will start as coach just a day after Zenit play at Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League last 16, with the Russians needing to overturn a 2-4 first leg deficit. Caretaker manager Sergei Semak will be in charge for that game. "Zenit has agreed terms on a contract with new head coach Andre Villas-Boas. The contract will be signed and Mr Villas-Boas will be presented in St Petersburg as Zenit's new head coach on March 20," Zenit said in a statement.
Zenit's owners, the Russian state-controlled gas giant Gazprom, will be looking beyond this season in signing Villas-Boas as they seek glory on the European stage. Spalletti achieved domestic success with Zenit, leading the Saint Petersburg side to two Russian league titles, and delivering a first Russian Cup win in 11 years soon after his appointment. But Gazprom lost patience with Spalletti's failure to make a breakthrough in the Champions League after several big money signings.
The purchase of Brazilian star Hulk and Belgium's Axel Witsel for a reported 100 million euros -- the biggest transfer buys in Russian football history -- has yet to transform the side into world beaters.
Manager seeks redemption
Villas-Boas will be looking to renew with success at Zenit after his stints at Chelsea and Tottenham ended with him being fired by the clubs thus eroding his reputation as one of the world's most promising young managers.
The Portuguese manager, a protege of Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, led Porto to an undefeated season in the Portuguese league, adding the Portuguese Cup and the UEFA Europa League in his first season in charge.
By doing so Villas-Boas became the youngest manager ever to win a European competition at the age of 33. The presence at Zenit of such a strong Portuguese-speaking contingent may have been behind the reasoning of taking on Villas-Boas. He is expected to have common ground with Zenit's Portuguese players including defender Luis Neto and midfielder Miguel Danny.
Brazilian Hulk, who was also one of the top players at Porto when Villas-Boas was at the helm, will also be able to communicate with the new boss in his native tongue.
Initial reaction to the appointment was mixed, with some saying that Villas-Boas was precisely the ambitious big name that Zenit needed, but others cautioned that he could prove divisive. "Zenit and Villas-Boas have a chance to climb to the very top of the hill together," former Zenit and Russian international forward Alexander Panov told the Soviet Sport daily.
"Zenit are looking to hit top form after a rocky domestic season, while the coach is also seeking a chance to rehabilitate himself after his failures in the English Premiership.
"He (Villas-Boas) has a great potential and his teams always play an attacking style of football. He speaks English and Portuguese and will understand all of the players in Zenit.
"I consider the club's choice to be flawless."
But Sandor Varga, a top football agent who works with Russian players, said that Zenit have made a risky choice and it remained to be seen what relationship Villas-Boas would have with his players. "Andre (Villas-Boas) is even more contentious a person than Spalletti," Varga told Russian daily Soviet Sport.
"Tottenham president Daniel Levy told me that Villas-Boas' conflicts with his team's players were the main reason for the club's decision."
"The situation in Zenit looks similar. I think from this point of view, Villas-Boas is definitely not the wise choice."