Aventuras Américas | Part 63 | Sporting #3: Building A Special Young Team

It’s safe to say that ageism is alive and kicking in football, as proven by the English press mocking Roy Hodgson’s sunglasses choice at Watford in recent weeks. But Colombian manager Robinho Lazaró was proving that 70-year-old managers could very much compete at the top as he wrapped up his 24th league title with Sporting Clube de Portugal in 2054.

Lazaró’s long-term aim was to climb as high up the all-time Hall of Fame as possible. He’d just reached number six on 4303 points, still some way behind Thomas Tuchel’s 6809, but the only active manager above him was Liverpool’s Julian Nagelsmann (who’s managed Barcelona and Real Madrid, Man UFC, Man City and Liverpool, as well as Wolfsburg and Juventus).

Lazaró would normally step down from a club after winning a title. But he felt there was much more left to achieve at Sporting, where he was really excited about the young squad he was working with. Even better news was that he had a cool £65 million available to strengthen it.

That transfer budget was boosted by selling 12 players for £47.5 million. That included centre-back Jose Pereira moving to West Ham for £18.5 million and midfielder Sandro Souto going to Basel for £11 million, plus selling both left-backs Edwin Armas and Adulai Djalo and centre-back Francisco Rodrigues.

They were replaced with exciting new signings like Colombian attacking midfielder/striker Ronaldo Villarreal, who joined for £17.5 million from last season’s surprise title challengers Nacional. The Colombian contingent grew to five as full-back Ewald Rubiano joined for £1 million from Águilas Pereira, along with South African full-back Ayanda Mofokeng – who Lazaró was convinced his scouts told him was a left-back but clearly wasn’t – for £650,000 from Mamelodi Sundowns and midfielder Geílson Matías for £6 million from Internacional. Then another left-back in 19-year-old Mexican Romario Liberato, who cost £5.5 million from Pumas.

The summer transfer business left midfielder Patrick Fortes as the oldest player at the club aged just 26, followed by Goncalo Mesquita at 25. Other than them, three players were 22 and the squad contained 19 players aged 21 or under and seven teenagers. It also included 14 players with 5-star potential, this is a squad worth getting excited about! And even with all the new signings, Lazaró still had £83 million of transfer budget remaining.

Liga Portugal Bwin title defence begins

Sporting’s title defence began at Nacional, which prompted Lazaró to hand Villarreal a debut against his former club. And that worked a treat as the Colombian set up two stunning strikes by exciting 18-year-old midfielder Jan Mares in a 4-0 demolition. While Porto lost 2-0 at home to Vitória on opening day.

The season began with three straight away games, and an Angelo Aires header was enough to claim a point at Vitória before Villarreal, striker Dias and 18-year-old vice-captain Vítor Veríssimo goals downed Feirense 3-1.

A first game of the season at Estádio José Alvalade saw Rio Ave come to town and frustrate Sporting until the 85th minute. But attacking midfielder Gerard Comamala eventually broke the deadlock and striker Srban Grbic came off the bench to add a late second. Star striker and new club captain Mesquita signed a bumper new contract in the summer and it looked to have gone to his head as he started the season with one goal in six games. But he put that behind him with back-to-back hat-tricks in a 4-0 and 4-1 thumpings of Arouca and Belenenses. Then he got injured for a month…

A month of big games

That injury was perfectly timed ahead of two huge games. First was a big trip to Benfica, who’d decided to be good again this season. Sporting came away with a 2-2 draw after leading 2-0 inside 11 minutes, but striker Anders Lassen did bag his first league goal in his 19th appearance. Next, they entertained Porto, who were struggling down in seventh place, and it showed as Sporting dominated and won 2-0 thanks to an excellent Grbic double. And that took them top for the first time this season.

That was backed up by a 2-0 win at home to fifth-place Braga thanks to another goal from the in-form Grbic and the exciting Veríssimo.

Dominating in Portugal

An easier run of games followed and Sporting strolled to easy wins over new boys Lusitania Lourosa and Alverca then smashed Estoril Praia led by Grbic bagging a four-goal haul.

That teed up a surprise top-of-the-table clash with second-place Boavista. Sporting again started superbly as Villarreal scored a brace inside half an hour, both assisted by the returning Mesquita. The Colombian finished the game off and wrapped up his hat-trick before Mesquita bagged a fourth, both assisted by sub Lassen, to make the game look far more comfortable than it was.

They backed that up with a 5-0 battering at Tondela led by another Grbic brace, which took him past 20 goals for the season, and another Villarreal strike. The bizarrely frontloaded Portuguese season continued with two games in four days just after Christmas. First up was an O Clássico Derby at Porto and a first league defeat followed, with a humiliating 3-0 loss ending a 21-game unbeaten streak. But a Dias double saw them end 2054 with a 2-0 win at Famalicao.

That saw them head into 2055 with a seven-point lead over rivals Benfica and 10 points clear of third-place Boavista. Grbic is the top scorer in the league with 14 goals in 14 games and Sporting have the top three average ratings and six of the top ten, led by Dias’ outrageous 7.91 in 16 appearances, of which five are as a sub.

Champions League group

As third seeds, Sporting were handed a tough draw alongside Man UFC, a strong Rennes side and Dinamo Zagreb. The toughest game was up first and they unsurprisingly got thumped 4-1 at Man UFC. But they won 3-0 at home to Zagreb then the unlikely duo of Dias and Lassen helped an injury-hit side beat Rennes 2-0 at home.

But they lost 1-0 in Rennes, who do have a ridiculous team, to keep things interesting. Then a Grbic brace led a 3-0 win in Zagreb to take them into the knockout stages. So Lazaró chucked in an entirely rotated 11 to face Man UFC and they somehow only lost 3-1 despite giving up 40 shots and 5.65 xG, with backup keeper Danover Viáfara making 16 saves! But they qualified in second behind that scummy Manchester club, who won every game.

Lazaró had built a really exciting squad that was packed with great young talents. Top of that list was Grbic, who won FIFA Best U21 Men’s Player after bagging 26 goals in 30 games at a 7.68 average rating in 2054. But 17 of the 23-man squad were averaging above a 7.00 and the likes of Lassen, Villarreal, Dias, Aires, Mares and Veríssimo were performing to really high standards and, as a result, attracting interest from the biggest clubs in Europe.

But while the season had started really well, Sporting were rocked by centre-back António José suffering a cruciate ligament injury that ruled him out for eight months in early December.

Lazaró’s advancing years were no obstacle to some of the biggest teams in the world showing an interest in his services. That was proven by Chelsea offering him an interview in mid-November, by which he was flattered but had no interest in returning to England.

Could Lazaró keep his Sporting talents together to defend their title? And how will they fare in the Champions League knockouts? Join us next time to find out!

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