Sporting Clube de Portugal found themselves somehow topping the Liga Portugal Bwin heading into 2054. But these were strange times at the club as their reigning President, Jorge Santos, was re-elected and celebrated his power by splashing £12 million on some random striker.
Luckily, Lazaró had continued his Sporting rebuild by selling two strikers for a profit of £10 million. But, in fairness to Santos, said striker Dias was actually pretty decent, if horrendously overpaid. Not to be outdone, Lazaró added his own striker in Serbian Srdan Grbic for £8 million from Red Star.
Sporting’s players saw plenty of interest from the biggest clubs in Europe as January came around. One of those was right-back Milton, who’d averaged a 7.34 this season and initiated a bidding war that Lazaró’s former club Barcelona eventually won, paying a huge £60 million for his services. Barca handed him a £130,000-a-week contract, when he had been on £66,000 at Sporting, which offered Lazaró a timely reminder of why he left the Spanish giants. Sporting also sold 29-year-old attacker Paolo Flores to Atalanta for £16.5 million, but importantly kept hold of top scorer Goncalo Mesquita.
Lazaró replaced Milton by spending £750,000 on his Colombian compatriot Francisco González from Deportivo Cali, but other than that he was happy with his exciting young squad.
Can Sporting maintain their title challenge?
2054 began brightly as the league’s top scorer Mesquita scored inside three minutes at Portimonense. The hosts scored their first shot, but midfielder Patrick Fortes’s brilliant goal enabled Sporting to take control. And they should have scored more than three as Grbic wasted a load of chances off the bench.
Mesquita was at it again with both goals in a massive 2-1 win at city rivals Benfica, in which González played a 7.4 on debut, then two more in a 3-2 win over Boavista, which took him to 30 goals for the season. And Dias finally got his first Sporting goal in a 2-0 win at Marítimo, which wrapped up five wins out of five in January.
That ended with a 1-0 loss at home to Braga, against whom Sporting now haven’t won in six attempts. Bizarrely, they then played just one match in a month and only three league games between 8 February and 5 April! Those games were, unsurprisingly, dominated by Mesquita, who scored the only goal against Moreirense then bagged a hat-trick in a 4-1 win at Santa Clara. That saw him break the all-time record for most goals in a Liga Portugal Bwin season as he moved on to 27 – and he’d now scored 18 in his last 13 games! That of course meant a very busy April and a mass of injuries led to a shock 2-0 defeat at bottom of the league Pacos de Ferreira.
Europa League knockouts
The Europa League second round first leg took Sporting to Ukraine, where they beat Dynamo Kiev 2-0 with Mesquite and Jan Mares goals. Then a 5-0 win at home saw Grbic get his first two Sporting goals along with another Mesquita brace.
Next up was French side Lille and another away leg up first saw a wild 3-3 draw, with both sides scoring in injury-time. But Lazaró was happy to see another Grbic goal and a late equaliser by Mares. However, he was less happy with a wasteful second leg, in which his former Liverpool winger José Pereira scored the only goal to send Lille through.
Five-way title battle?
That result teed up an exciting five-way title battle. Sporting led the way three points clear of Porto, who were a further three points clear of Vitória, with Nacional and Benfica another three points back. But Sporting undoubtedly had the trickiest run-in.
Game 1 – Tondela (9th, away): The easiest game remaining got the desired result as a 52nd-minute strike by midfielder Romário da Conceicao nicked a 1-0 win. But exciting 17-year-old centre-back Vítor Veríssimo put in a player of the match performance. Elsewhere, Porto beat Pacos 7-0, Vitória beat Santa Clare 4-0 and Nacional beat Feirense 2-1, but Benfica drew 1-1 with Boavista to drop out of title contention.
Game 2 – Porto (2nd, home): Next up was a potential title decider in the O Clássico Derby. The two sides played out a fairly cagey game but Sporting probably edged it and probably should have won it. But it ended in a 0-0 stalemate to keep Sporting three points clear with three games to go. Vitória only drew 1-1 at Feirense, Nacional won 1-0 at Pacos and Benfica won 3-1 at Marítimo.
Game 3 – Nacional (4th, away): Another potentially tricky game took Sporting to Nacional, who had their winger sent off after just six minutes. And the visitors took full advantage with first-half goals from Fortes and fellow midfielder Eugen Simunovic, both assisted by Gerard Comamala, before a late Grbic strike. Porto – who’ve lost one of their last 15 league games – beat Tondela 1-0, Vitória won 3-1 at home to Pacos, and Benfica climbed to fourth with a 1-0 win over Braga. So Sporting remained three points clear of Porto and six clear of Vitória with two games remaining.
Game 4 – Vitória de Guimaraes (3rd, home): Another calamitious start saw Vitória’s right-back chest the ball back into Mesquita’s path, allowing him to sauinter through for the openers after 16 minutes. But the visitors responded with a well-worked equaliser (which was obviously their first shot on target) 20 minutes later. Sporting were back in front five minutes after the break as Comamala tucked home a loose ball from a corner. They doubled their lead with an outrageous Mesquita chip on 70 minutes and the striker wrapped up a hat-trick in injury-time. Porto battered fourth-place Nacional 5-2 to take the title battle to the final day.
Game 5 – Rio Ave (8th, away): The season finale took place three days after Lazaró’s 70th birthday, but could his players give him the perfect birthday present? Heading into the final day, they were three points clear of Porto, but the sides were level on goal difference.
Porto scored after nine minutes at Vitória while Sporting made a very slow start at Rio Ave. But Comamala changed all that on 21 minutes with an inspired goal, picking up the ball 25 yards out, turning and curling a beauty into the top corner. That settled the nerves and Mares doubled the lead four minutes later, which meant Sporting were 2-0 up from two shots! da Conceicao came off the bench to immediately win a penalty that Mesquita tucked home for his 45th goal of the season on 76 minutes and Grbic scored off the bench in injury time to wrap up a 4-0 thumping.
Sporting were Champions of Portugal for the first time in 27 years!!
Sporting won the title by three points from Porto. They finished on 81 points with 26 wins, three draws and five defeats, scoring 75 and conceding just 20. Benfica dragged themselves up to third above Vitória and Nacional.
Mesquita set new league records for most goals (33 goals in 32), average rating (7.71) and player of the match awards (11). That won him the Portuguese Premiuer League Player of the Year, as well as coming second in the European Golden Shoe, despite scoring one more than Arsenal’s insanely good Agustin Margiacchi. And Comamala got the third-most assists with 12.
This was a pretty impressive season for Sporting, who very much weren’t fancied as potential title winners. But a superb campaign saw Lazaró wrap up the 24th league title and 39th trophy of his glittering career.
Lazaró’s transfer business had been crucial, with the likes of Mares, Comamala and goalkeeper Jonathan Caballero key to the success. But players he inherited, like Mesquita, Angelo Aires and Verissimo, had been the solid foundation for the title win.
Mesquita was undoubtedly the star man, scoring a ridiculous club-record 45 goals in 42 games in all competitions and averaging a 7.74. The next top scorer was the impressive 18-year-old Mares, who scored 10 and got 12 assists in 35 games and won the club’s goal of the season. Comamala topped the assists with 13 while Fortes got 11 and Simunovic got 10. But special mention also has to go to Aires, who averaged a 7.45 in 39 games and won the fans’ young player of the season. A more concerning player was Dias, who only scored three times in 19 games – not the President’s best work!
Lazaró would normally look to move on having wrapped up a title but, barring dramatic events in the summer, he was really keen to stay with this exciting young Sporting side.
Join us next time to discover if Lazaró can retain the Portuguese title and how his Sporting side fare in the Champions League!