Basel’s Paulo Sousa is a manager of many miles in the Champions League

Basel coach Paulo Sousa has the same Swansea City pedigree as his Champions League counterpart Brendan Rodgers and his traveling CV proves he can win in different settings, writes Ian Hawkey.
Basel coach Paulo Sousa is armed with the 1-0 win the Swiss champions have achieved over Liverpool in their first meeting. Vassil Donev / EPA
Basel coach Paulo Sousa is armed with the 1-0 win the Swiss champions have achieved over Liverpool in their first meeting. Vassil Donev / EPA

Paulo Sousa, coach of Basel, and Brendan Rodgers, his Liverpool counterpart, have a bond. Indeed, there is a part of Rodgers who will forever owe the Portuguese, for the slice of good luck and happy timing that sent him down the most productive path of his career.

Sousa managed Swansea City for a season, until the summer of 2010 took them to within a point of the Championship play-offs. He then moved on to Leicester City, sensing the outlook there was more ambitious: An error of judgment, he would later admit, but it gave an opportunity to Rodgers, who was offered the Swansea job with a brief to maintain the Welsh club’s momentum and continue a tradition for enterprising football.

Rodgers fulfilled expectations, reached the play-offs with Swansea, then was promoted to the Premier League, and soon enough, he was called to Anfield.

To have Swansea as a recent entry on a coaching resumé is generally a strong a recommendation. It makes managers part of a fairytale rise, endorses the use of sound footballing principles, suggests an inclination for adventure, for courage. To Paulo Sousa, Rodgers has that. “He’s a great man, and a great coach who always looks to win, and doesn’t play for a draw,” Sousa said.

To some followers of Basel, Sousa looks at times as if he has too much adventure. “His approach, with the players he has, is not defensively sound enough in the context of Europe,” said Swiss analyst Kubilay Turkilmaz, the former Switzerland international, after Sousa had overseen a 5-1 loss to Real Madrid in his first Uefa Champions League outing in charge of Basel, the club he joined in the summer.

Since then, a more appreciative view of Sousa’s philosophy has developed. Basel, Swiss champions six times in the last seven years, lead their division by a comfortable distance, and though Sousa has not yet collected as much notice in Europe as his respected predecessor, Murat Yakin, his methods are working domestically.

Should Sousa get the required result against Liverpool on Tuesday night, Basel supporters will have a souvenir as special as last season’s wins over Chelsea in the Champions League and Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter-final of the Europa League.

For Sousa the coach, penetrating the last 16 of club football’s most elite competition will be a frontier crossed. He has flitted around jobs as coach, not from QPR, to Swansea and to Leicester in the second tier of English football, but through marginal territories of Europe. He had Hungary’s Videoton, making valiant progress in the Europa League in his spell there, and while in charge of Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, he made a strong impression on the directors of Basel, securing two draws against them, first in a close Champions League play-off and then in a Europa League knockout tie.

England, Wales, Hungary, Israel, Switzerland: Five countries in six years as a senior coach. In his wanderlust, Sousa the manager resembles Sousa the midfielder, except that as a player, he almost always kept the company of heavyweights. He was part of Portugal’s so-called “golden generation”, a contemporary and international teammate of Luis Figo and Rui Costa. He collected medals regularly: a Serie A title and a Champions League trophy with Juventus, whom he left to win the European Cup a year later with Borussia Dortmund, beating Juve in the final.

Like the young Rodgers, he suffered chronic knee problems. Unlike Rodgers, obliged to retire from playing in his early 20s, Sousa’s condition only called a premature end to his authoritative anchoring of midfields in his early 30s. His mentors had already identified a coach in the making.

Carlos Queiroz, who knew Sousa from his early teens, made him one of his assistants with the Portugal national team in 2008, and he was soon keen to go solo, accepting a job at QPR that lasted only a few months.

Anfield’s fevered ambience should not affect a man who has been around the block, and has negotiated many noisy nights at San Siro, at Dortmund’s Westfalen stadium, at Lisbon’s Luz.

He is also armed with the 1-0 win Basel achieved over Liverpool on matchday two. That gives Sousa’s side, who need only a draw to progress, a slim advantage. It also gives their adventurous coach a dilemma: How far to try and protect that position? Or how eagerly to seek the early goals that could bury Liverpool?

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Published: December 8, 2014 04:00 AM


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