The fans of Puebla FC were high on excitement as Colombian / Brazilian manager Robinho Lazaró led their heroes back to Liga MX in his first six months in México.
The step up in quality also came with laxer selection restrictions. The match squad needs to have 11 Mexican-born players and have three in the starting 11 – as opposed to the eight starters last season. That meant Lazaró could look to bring in more foreign players.
The first signing of the summer was a familiar face in exciting young Alianza Lima striker Diego Arroé, who joined for £32,000. He was soon joined by goalkeeper Daniel Aguilar for £225,000 from Guadalajara and full-back Omar Cabrera for £40,000 from Cancún a few days after sealing promotion.
Lazaró’s budget was vastly boosted by Cruz Azul selling wonderkid midfielder Luis Miguel Zecua to Chelsea for £37 million. Puebla’s 40% of next profit deal earned them an £11.75 million kickback, which doubled the transfer budget to £15.4 million.
With that money, they brought in exciting centre-back Henry Mosquera for £200,000 from Ecuadorian side El Nacional and attacking midfielder Ricardo Páez for £65,000 from Venezuelan side La Guaira. They also snapped up experienced former Boca midfielder Lucas Vázquez on a free transfer from Estudiantes.
Flying start to Liga MX
Puebla are overwhelming underdogs in the 18-team Liga MX, with the media predicting them to finish bottom at 2000/1 to win the league – with the next highest odds being 450/1. Cruz Azul (2/1) are the favourites, followed by Monterrey (9/2), Tigres (6/1), Pumas (8/1) and Xolos Tijuana (13/1).
Lazaró’s first taste of Liga MX was at Mazátlan and they got off to a fluer as striker Alexander Ferrari scored a first-half double, then went on to waste several more chances. And the hosts made them pay as they scored two quick goals courtesy of dubious VAR calls either side of half-time. But they held on for a deserved draw and Lazaró was relatively pleased with outshooting their opponents.
They also got a flyer in their first home game against Toluca as Páez raced through to score his first goal for the club. This time they took control as Arroé, in for the injured Ferrari, staked his claim by scoring twice and creating one for strike partner Ramón Rodríguez, which ended his 16-match goal drought! They again leaked two goals late on but a first Liga MX win was in the bag! The dream start continued as Vázquez and Rodríguez scored in the first 10 minutes at Club León. This time they didn’t relent and Arroé and Mosquera wrapped up a huge 4-0 win!
That gave Puebla the confidence to kick on with a 2-0 win over Necaxa then a sensational 5-0 thumping of Querétaro inspired by a Ferrari hat-trick on his return from injury. That took Puebla top of the league after an unbeaten first five games of the campaign, but things were about to get very difficult!
Taking on México’s big boys
A first big test saw Puebla lose 2-1 at Xolos, which kicked off a string of games against the top teams in the league. First up were champions Cruz Azul at home and Puebla completely dominated with 23 shots to 13 and 2.19 xG to 1.16 – but lost 1-0! They then faced a trip to the stunning Estadio Azteca for a first clash with historical rivals, record 14-time title winners and Lazaró’s favoured team Club América, who matched up Lazaró’s 4-3-1-2 formation. América unsurprisingly dominated and looked to be easing to a 2-0 win until Arroé came on to get a goal back then had a curling shot brilliantly saved in injury-time. But a 2-1 loss showed plenty of promise.
Lazaró reached the landmark of 500 matches as a Football Manager looking to bring that run of defeats to an end at home to Atlas Guadalajara. However, the players had other ideas as they put in their worst performance yet to lose 2-0. Then lost to Deportivo Guadalajara 3-1 despite having more xG, which appears to be the ongoing story of this season.
As if the run of form wasn’t bad enough, they then had to face Tigres and Monterrey. However, out of nowhere, they ran riot in the first half at home to a struggling Tigres as a Ferrari hat-trick and a brace from midfielder Eduardo Torres had them 5-0 up at the break! Tigres made mass changes but it didn’t affect the flow of the game as Ferrari bagged two more to wrap up a Liga MX record five-goal haul and a massive 7-0 win with 5.52 xG!
Ferrari backed that up with a brace to earn Puebla an unlikely 3-3 draw at leaders Monterrey to bring the tough run of games to a close on a positive note.
Puebla’s goalscoring excellence continued as they defeated fourth-place Mineros de Zacatecas 3-0 led by another Ferrari brace. However, they then got ripped apart at leaders Pumas, who scored with basically every shot to lead 4-1 at the break. But Puebla fought hard and got it back to 4-3 then missed a host of great chances before leaking a late fifth. And yet again, they had more shots and significantly more xG than their better opponents. Then they lost 3-1 at new leaders Pachuca, who were by far the better team.
Puebla finished the Apertura with a 0-0 draw at home to Juaréz, which saw them finish the stage in 11th place – despite being in the top six until the 13th match. They were the top scorers in the league with 39 goals and had the third-worst defence with 26 conceded! Winners Pachuca only scored 17 – three of which were against Puebla – and conceded 10.
Ferrari was by far and away the top scorer with 18 goals in 13 games, which was double his nearest challenger, and Rodríguez topped the assists chart with nine. Puebla also had four of the top five average ratings in the league, led by Ferrari on 7.95! Unfortunately, their defence just isn’t good enough yet.
Puebla then entered the Apertura Preliminary Round at home to Xolos Tijuana. Puebla had the better of the game but, as usual, failed to make the most of their higher xG and it ended in a 0-0. That took it to penalties, in which Aguilar stepped up to save Xolos’ second penalty only for Alek Álvarez to miss Puebla’s fifth. But no worries, as Aguilar saved their sixth to send Puebla through!
The reward was a two-legged quarter-final with league winners Pachuca. Puebla were at home first and again racked up more xG but lost 3-2 due to poor defensive performances. Pachuca then obviously scored with their first shot in the second leg and swiftly added a second and hit the bar twice. Puebla responded well to get back to 2-2 through midfielder Nicolás Palavecino and Rodríguez but idiotic right-back González got himself sent off for a two-footed tackle on a player by the corner flag to kill any chances of a fightback. And they exited 5-4 on aggregate.
Lazaró’s stature recognised
Away from Puebla, Lazaró was selected as manager for Mexican All-Stars against MLS All-Stars! He didn’t know who too many of the players were, other than Sean Gilkerson who’d been the best player in MLS when he was at NYRB and had just joined Monterrey. And Gilkerson popped up with an equaliser after an hour then put them ahead 13 minutes later before centre-back Santiago Cano wrapped up a 3-1 win. That was the Mexicans’ first win in the game in seven years and adds another cup competition to Lazaró’s trophy cabinet!
During the season’s early knocking, Lazaró got his first international job offer from Paraguay, but didn’t want to tar his club commitments so turned down their offer.
Join us next time as Lazaró looks to strengthen the defensive side of Puebla’s play as they move into the second half of their first season in Liga MX!