Aventuras Américas | Part 7 | Puerto Montt #6: Tricky First Taste of Top-Tier Football

Robinho Lazaró had enjoyed unexpected success in his first two years as a Football Manager, tasting promotion with his first club Deportes Puerto Montt in 2023. As a result, the Puerto Montt board handed Lazaró a new three-year deal on £750-per-week that keeps him at the club until 2026.

However, with promotion achieved, he now faced a seriously tough task to keep his side in the Campeonato AFP Plan Vital. That task wasn’t helped by several young players passing the 21 years threshold for being considered a foreign player, which meant he had to ditch several of his exciting prospects.

One of the five foreign player slots was freed up as last season’s top scorer José de Jésus Godínez got his knickers in a twist about a new contract and requested a transfer. Lazaró obliged and he moved to FC Edmonton for £150,000, which smashed the club record sale three-fold. He was also forced into selling young prospect Tonho for £85,000 and Erick Espinosa back to México for £56,000.

Lazaró didn’t see a penny of those deals though as the cash went straight into arresting the club’s £700,000 of arrears, which was reduced to around £250,000. But, having not spent a penny in his two years at the club, he was more than used to wheeling and dealing. And, with just £6,870 being spent on wages, he’d barely scratched the surface of his £24,000 weekly budget.

Three players arrived on free transfers when the transfer window. The pick of them was last year’s loanee star centre-back Sebastián Pino, alongside exciting Brazilian winger/left-back Victor Hugo, who’s worryingly never played a league game aged 22, and backup goalkeeper Matías Carreno. He then added right-back Marcelo Medel, who was the only additional permanent signing.

Instead, Lazaró again relied on loan deals to bolster the squad. That included much-needed right-back Daniel Navarrete from national champions Universidad de Chile, midfielders Benjamín Iglesias and Dylan Portilla from Universidad Católica and Huachiupato. They were joined by not overly Chilean sounding striker Gabriel Harding from Curicó Unido and centre-back Massami Yanez from Audax Italiano.

With a squad just about cobbled together, Lazaró looked to a more defensive-minded approach to start the campaign. He moved to a 4-1-3-2 from the 4-3-1-2 that worked well last season, which wouldn’t work given he didn’t have any attacking midfielders but he kept in his back pocket just in case.

Into the Chilean top tier

Unsurprisingly, the Chilean media had very little hope for Puerto Montt’s chances, predicting them to finish 16th and last at 1,000/1 to win the league. Colo-Colo are favourites at 2/1 followed by Universidad de Chile (12/5) and Universidad Católica (6/1). The club is only spending £360,000-a-year on wages which, along with fellow promoted side Melipilla, was significantly less than next-lowest spending Nublense’s £759,000 and Temuco’s £957,000. But interestingly, three Puerto Montt players, Portilla, Francisco Calisto and Mauro Antonio, were among the top five candidates for the league’s young player of the year.

Luckily, the board only want Lazaró to fight bravely against relegation. However, Lazaró’s new assistant manager had forgotten to arrange any pre-season friendlies. So los chicos came into the new season having not kicked a ball in three months, which certainly wouldn’t help their already slim chances.

However, there was still a sense of optimism as the fans, who’d snapped up 1,152 season tickets compared to 780 last season. Los Delfines masses filed into Estadio Regional de Chinquihe for the season opener against Temuco, who finished 11th last year. And they saw a familiar combination give their side a flyer as Eduardo Vilches swung in a corner for Pino to smash home and cries of “Pino, Pino, Pino” boomed out around the ground. But the visitors probably had the better of it and got a deserved equaliser. And Lazaró was satisfied with an opening day point.

A strong defensive effort saw Puerto Montt steal a 0-0 at fourth favourite for the title Unión La Calera. However, they found themselves 3-0 down inside 27 minutes at home to La Serena and were a little unfortunate to lose 2-0 at Palestino. But they did superbly to earn a 0-0 with Universidad Católica and Lazaró told los chicos he couldn’t be prouder of them, even if that did mean four games without scoring…

A good chance to put that right came with a trip to bottom of the league Unión Espanola. Puerto Montt got a good start as striker Vladimir Moragrega was taken out clean through on goal (which surely should be a red card?) but dusted himself off to tuck away the penalty. Some painful defending allowed the hosts to equalise then take the lead with a penalty, but Moragrega drilled home from 25 yards to earn a fourth draw in six games.

Moragrega was at it again, opening the scoring against Melipilla, who levelled with a slightly suspicious penalty. But Puerto Montt responded immediately as midfielder Alfonso Sánchez latched onto a Navarrete cross to score his first of the season. And this time they held on for Lazaró’s first-ever top-tier win.

Finding life difficult at the top

A much tougher test followed as they travelled to title favourites Colo-Colo. The hosts were lingering in eighth but were far too good and eased to a 2-0 win despite Eduardo Miranda’s heroics in goal earning him an 8.3. And the tough tests continued as they entertained the top two, starting with a 3-1 loss to Curicó Unido then a 2-0 defeat to leaders Antofagasta. And that saw Puerto Montt slump into the relegation zone.

Some tactical tweaks saw a marked improvement at eighth-place Everton de Vina del Mar, who wear a lovely Boca Juniors replica kit. That clearly inspired ex-Boca striker Santiago Patroni, who scored his first goal of the season to put Puerto Montt ahead. But the hosts came back into it and scored a screamer to earn a point. They then lost to Huachipato, which had Lazaró down in the dumps and resigned to the fact that his team were going down.

But, out of nowhere, a second win of the season lifted his spirits. A Patroni goal downed Audax Italiano in an absolutely dreadful match. And, crucially, that moved Puerto Montt above their opponents and three points above the relegation zone. They had a great chance to back that up with a trip to bottom side Nublense, but a very harsh Patroni red card left them in the lurch and they slipped to a 1-0 defeat.

Just what they didn’t need next was a trip to reigning champions Universidad de Chile, who absolutely dominated and led 1-0 at the break. Moragrega undeservedly nicked an equaliser but the hosts ran riot to win 5-1 with three goals in the last ten minutes.

That left Puerto Montt down in 13th in the table at the halfway mark of the season, with 11 points from their 15 games. They’ve only scored eight but conceded 25 in those games. The relegation battle looks set to be tight with just four points separating 12th and 16th places.

Positive off-field signs

Away from the on-field action, Puerto Montt was now in the black financially for the first time during Lazaró’s tenure, partly because of the sales and thanks to increased TV revenue.

Lazaró also managed to bag his National A Licence, which saw his reputation rise to a mighty 2-stars and become the second most reputable coach at the club. However, there was, as yet, no sign of other clubs across the Americas taking an interest in his services.

Join us next time to discover whether Robinho Lazaró can save his Deportes Puerto Montt side or if a first relegation is on the cards.

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