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After troubled times in England, Andre Villas-Boas tastes success in Russia with Zenit

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MOSCOW — After rough spells in London, Andre Villas-Boas is tasting success in Russia.

The man known as AVB arrived at Chelsea in 2011 amid a blizzard of headlines hailing him as the heir to Jose Mourinho - a young Portuguese coach who, like Mourinho, had won a pile of trophies with FC Porto.

The honeymoon didn't last. At Chelsea, his long-term project to revive the club's fortunes lasted less than nine months. Then at Tottenham, he managed for a year-and-a-half before a 5-0 thrashing by Liverpool ended his tenure.

When Villas-Boas resurfaced with Zenit St. Petersburg, still only 36, another failure could have seen the former golden boy slip into obscurity.

Instead, he has thrived away from the limelight, leading Zenit to its first Russian title since 2012 on Sunday. His top scorer is Brazilian forward Hulk, once Villas-Boas' star striker at Porto and now reunited with his old boss.

In swapping the English Premier League for Russia, Villas-Boas left behind the comforts of the world's richest competition for the grittier reality of a league which pits big clubs like Zenit and CSKA Moscow against provincial clubs with small crowds, muddy fields and dilapidated Soviet-era stadiums.

Some clubs have no stadium at all - Zenit's opponent Sunday, FC Ufa, was only founded in 2010 and has played "home" games in cities across Russia this season because its own stadium is unfit for use.

Villas-Boas had a difficult start to life in Russia. Arriving in March 2014, he took over in the middle of a close title race and, despite winning seven of his first nine games in charge, lost out to CSKA by a single point.

Worse, Zenit's old hooligan problem resurfaced. With their team losing 4-1 to Dynamo Moscow in the penultimate game of the season, fans stormed the pitch. The sight of one bare-chested supporter punching Dynamo player Vladimir Granat was a dramatic contrast to the image of a modern European club that Zenit management had carefully cultivated.

PHOTO: Zenit's players throw Zenit’s head coach Andre Villas-Boas as they celebrate after winning the national soccer Championship after match against Ufa in St.Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, May 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Zenit's players throw Zenit’s head coach Andre Villas-Boas as they celebrate after winning the national soccer Championship after match against Ufa in St.Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, May 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

This season Zenit has been untouchable. Villas-Boas' first full campaign in charge started with eight straight wins, with 26 goals scored and only four conceded. None of Zenit's title rivals came close to matching the performance of a team which has not lost a league game since November. The only black mark was a Champions League campaign which saw Zenit eliminated in the group stage.

Villas-Boas has developed into something of a peacemaker in Russia.

Under Zenit predecessor Luciano Spalletti, a dressing room full of expensive signings and big personalities regularly degenerated into civil war. At one stage, Hulk publicly demanded a transfer, and two senior players, both regulars for the Russian national team, were forced out of the club following disputes with Spalletti and club management.

That has been consigned to the past under Villas-Boas, who has managed to forge the disparate individuals into a team, ending the constant reports of dressing-room splits.

He's become a campaigner, too, speaking out against the racism still endemic in Russian soccer. When Hulk was targeted with monkey chants by Torpedo Moscow fans in March, Villas-Boas ensured the incident could not be swept under the rug.

"The game was a disgrace," he said on live TV. "The insults, the racist insults to Hulk, they go around the world and this is the image of the Russian Premier League."

Apart from the Portuguese coach's diplomatic skills, something else has helped, too - money. Zenit is bankrolled by Gazprom, the Russian state gas company, and it continued to pump funds into the club even as Russia's economy slid into recession.

Russia's economic crisis has hit football hard as many of the state-owned companies, oligarchs and regional governments that fund clubs cut back on spending. That has meant an exodus of players as Zenit's title rivals try to balance the books.

Soon after CSKA striker Seydou Doumbia made headlines across Europe with his three Champions League goals against Manchester City, he was sold to Roma to raise funds. Lokomotiv Moscow, which finished third last season, also saw key players leave.

Zenit's next challenge is to keep its team together. Midfielder Axel Witsel is already attracting interest from across Europe, and it's a safe bet that AVB will, too.

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