Sporting CP had enjoyed a fine start to their first title defence in 27 years. But their exciting young squad was attracting envious glances from the best clubs around the world as 2055 ticked around.
Players that did leave were midfielders Eugen Simunovic to Dinamo Zagreb for £5.5 million and Luis Raposo to Wolves for £4.5 million, and defender Ivan Lopes joined Inter for £5 million. But they managed to keep hold of the likes of Goncalo Mesquita, who was unhappy with his game time and attracted interest from PSG, and midfielder Gerard Comamala, who was wanted by Man UFC and PSG.
The squad was boosted by the arrival of two more wonderkid Colombians. First in was centre-back Ricardo Gil, who signed for £1.3 million last January then returned to Deportivo Cali on loan. Potentially more exciting was striker Wilson Salazar, whose ridiculously low buyout clause at Junior FC of £1.1 million was met with glee and looks like a ridiculous talent. And that takes the Colombian contingent to eight – compared to just five Portuguese (which is misleading as three players have chosen to play for Cape Verde rather than Portugal) – and the average age down to just 20.6!
Title defence continues
The first game of 2055 was a visit from last year’s surprise package Nacional, who’d plummeted to 14th after Sporting nicked their star player Ronaldo Villarreal. Sporting strolled to a 3-1 success led by a brace from officially the best young player in the world Srdan Grbic.
Lazaró reached the “incredible” milestone of 1,500 matches as a Football Manager as fourth-place Vitória visited Estádio José Alvalade. And his players just about celebrated that with a win as Grbic and midfielder Gerald Comamala secured a 2-1 success to move 12 points clear at the top.
The strong form continued as Villarreal bagged a hat-trick – his second in four games – in a 5-0 mauling at eighth-place Rio Ave. Then an 89th-minute Goncalo Mesquita penalty bailed out a 1-0 win at home to Portimonense, which took them to five straight wins.
Their good form just kept on going led by Grbic’s relentless goalscoring, including a hat-trick in a 3-0 win at Arouca. And that moved Sporting 16 points clear at the end of February!
Cup success on the cards?
Lazaró paid very little interest in the Portuguese cup competitions but his backup 11s had seen them through to the Allianz Cup semi-final. Their opponent was city rivals Benfica and a Jan Mares strike two minutes before the break was enough to reach the final.
Unsurprisingly, they faced Porto three days later in an O Clássico Derby cup final. Sporting started on the front foot as Villarreal crashed a free-kick against the bar inside five minutes. But that proved to be a sighter as they bet in an outrageous 30-yard free-kick, which won the tournament’s Goal of the Year, 22 minutes later. He then set up Dias for an easy second four minutes before the break and Sporting were cruising. Porto got a goal back but substitute Grbic restored the two-goal gap immediately, which proved crucial as they grabbed a late consolation. Sporting were Allianz Cup winners!
Champions League knockouts
The Champions League first knockout round seemed relatively kind, drawing Sporting with RB Leipzig. However, they were top of Bundesliga and won the Champions League last season despite finishing fifth in the league! Sporting took control with a dominant first-leg performance as a Villarreal double led a 4-0 win over 10-man Leipzig. But the game was marred by Grbic suffering a broken ankle that likely ruled him out for the rest of the season. The away leg was a total role reversal as Leipzig dominated and won 3-0 – making Villarreal’s injury-time fourth in the first leg crucial – knocking out the reigning champions.
Next up was a much tougher test against Man City and, if they somehow got through, they’d face one of Lazaró’s former clubs Wolfsburg or Liverpool. But unfortunately, they also lost Mares and Angelo Aires to injuries in the run-up to the first leg.
The home game was up first again and Sporting started well only for City to score their first shot on target with a lovely curled effort. But they didn’t give up, had the best of the chances and eventually took one, as Mesquita latched onto an excellent Romário da Conceicao through-ball to bag a deserved equaliser. Sporting also had the better of the away leg but again City scored their first shot on target and managed to see off everything that was thrown at them. But Lazaró was massively proud of his players’ efforts against a team that has a seven-times larger salary spend (£242 million vs. £34.5 million).
Lazaró’s former club Liverpool beat City to make it to the final, but lost 1-0 to Man UFC.
Chasing the title defence
Realistically, heading into the last few months of the season it didn’t look like anybody could stop Sporting from defending their title. Grbic’s injury was a major blow but it gave Mesquita a chance to return to the starting 11, which he took by bagging a brace in a 5-0 thumping of Moreirense then a brace and an assist in a 3-0 win at Boavista.
That took Sporting to the brink of the title in mid-March, as they led Benfica by 18 points with seven games remaining. And, fittingly, their first chance to secure the title came at home to Benfica. They made a flying start as Dias teed up that man Mesquita, who won and converted a penalty 12 minutes later. Despite total domination, that was enough for an easy 2-0 win. And, despite a lack of on-field trophy presentation and ticker tape, that wrapped up the title!
Sporting CP defended their Liga Portugal Bwin and wrapped up the league and cup double!!
Mesquita kept his good form going with three consecutive braces in a 4-1 win over struggling Famalicao, in which Dias ended a 10-hour goal drought, a 6-0 thrashing of bottom side Lusitania Lourosa, in which Salazar scored his first goal, and a 3-0 win over Alverca. And the season concluded with a 4-1 win at Estoril Praia then a 4-0 thrashing of 10-man Tondela led by a Villarreal brace, which could easily have finished 10-0.
That saw Sporting finish absolutely miles clear at the top, a massive 19 points ahead of Benfica. They lost once all season and only drew three times. As a result, they set new records for most goals (101, surpassing Porto’s previous record of 87) and most points (93, surpassing Benfica’s 90) in a Liga Portugal Bwin season, and only conceded 18 goals.
Mesquita led the way with 24 goals in 23 games, followed by Grbic’s 21 in 20. Dias topped the assists chart with 16, followed by Comamala’s 15, and set a new average rating record of 7.99. Sporting also had eight of the nine top average ratings in the league, with Mares coming ninth on 7.45. Pretty impressive!
This was an unbelievable season for Sporting with some ridiculous performances across the squad. Only five players had an average rating below 7.00, three of which started less than five games.
The star man this season was definitely Grbic, who scored 29 in 29 and averaged 7.86 before having his season cruelly cut short by injury. Pushing him close was Mesquita, who scored 26 in 30 with 11 assists at a 7.70 average rating.
Dias scored 14 and got a club-high 20 assists, earning him fans’ player and young player of the season. While Villarreal also impressed with 17 goals and eight assists in his first season and Comamala scored 10 goals and assisted 15. Other key players included the young centre-back partnership of Aires and Vítor Veríssimo, who had average ratings of 7.41 and 7.33 respectively, and goalkeeper Jonathan Caballero averaged a 7.19, kept a new club record 25 clean sheets and got five assists – which was the joint-fifth most at the club!
The talent in this Sporting squad is unquestionable. The exciting Mares won NxGn 2055, followed closely by Veríssimo in third, loaned-out midfielder Rui Agostinho, who’s dubbed “the next Joao Felilx,” in fourth and Salazar in 10th. While full-backs Ewald Rubiano and Ayanda Mofokeng came 11th and 38th. And the season concluded with 11 Sporting players wanted by the biggest teams across Europe.
Given the young talent at his disposal, Lazaró was more than happy to remain at Sporting and have another crack at the Champions League. However, if an interesting job became available during the summer of 2055, the now 71-year-old manager would be mad to turn it down.
So will Robinho Lazaró remain in Portugal? And if so, could he keep his best young starlets at the club? Join us next time to find out!