Sporting CP came into 2056 still in contention in all four competitions and on a 32-game unbeaten run in the league. But their manager Robinho Lazaró had a big decision to make as the new year ticked around – stay at Sporting or accept offers from Man UFC or Rennes?
After much deliberation, the Colombian decided to stay in Portugal, largely based on the encouragement that two draws with Liverpool in their Champions League group had given him. He had an exciting young squad and he was keen to see how far he could take this talented group.
However, they came into the new year with 14 of the 24-man squad wanted by teams across Europe. Lazaró had to reject huge bids, including Atletico offering £95 million offer for star man Ronaldo Villarreal and a miserly £40 million for star striker Goncalo Mesquita, but they again held onto their prized assets.
How long can Sporting stay unbeaten?
2056 began with Mesquita taking over as top scorer in Liga Portugal Bwin with both goals in a 2-0 win at Belenenses. A few days later saw a surprise big game as they hosted second-place Braga. And the same result occurred as Villarreal scored early on then Angelo Aires headed home late on.
Mesquita was really finding top form now, as proven by banging a hat-trick in a 3-0 win at home to city rivals Benfica then a brace to defeat newly promoted Gondomar. Their relentless league form continued but so did Porto’s, who won 12 on the bounce before a defeat at Vitória, which moved Sporting eight points clear with seven to play.
And that teed up a potential title decider as Sporting visited Porto in mid-April. Their efforts weren’t helped as right-back Romario Liberato was very harshly sent off after 15 minutes. Porto took control and eventually scored after half an hour and Sporting also missed several chances to get level. But they fell to a first defeat of the season and had Jonathan Caballero to thank for his 15 saves keeping it to 1-0. That ended a 54-match unbeaten league streak and cut their lead to five points.
Chasing cup glory
Sporting’s backup 11 had progressed to the semi-finals of both the Allianz Cup and the Taca de Portugal.
In the semis of the Allianz, Wilson Salazar and Jan Mares goals sealed an easy 2-0 win over Braga. A few days later, they took on city rivals Benfica in the final. And they got a flyer through homegrown midfielder Jorge Machado’s stunning low drive then Villarreal bettering it from 25 yards. Benfica undeservedly got a goal back but Villarreal killed it off with seven minutes remaining. And Sporting defended their Allianz Cup title!
The Taca de Portugal semi was a two-legged affair against Portimonense. But it was all over after the first leg as they strolled to a 4-0 win led by a Mesquita brace and goals by Villarreal and striker Srdan Grbic. Lazaró fully rotated and a 2-1 away loss was enough to reach a second cup final.
Their opponent in the final was Braga. Sporting made a bright start with six shots in the first five minutes. And they made it count as Villarreal crossed for Aires to tap home after 10 minutes. Despite an xG of 1.69 to 0.02, it was only 1-0 at half-time. Lazaró gave them a slight telling off and it worked as Lassen headed home a second on 54 minutes and his strike partner Grbic bagged a brace in the next seven minutes. A relentless second half saw Lassen add his second as they declared at 5-0. Sporting wrapped up the Portuguese cup double!
Champions League knockouts
After a solid group showing, Sporting were drawn with French champions Lyon in the first knockout round. A cagey first leg in France was decided by Mesquita’s first-half strike but the defence played superbly to deny Lyon. And the same happened in the return leg, with Sporting restricting Lyon to zero shots on target and Mesquita scoring the only goal on 72 minutes.
The quarter-finals pitted them against Ajax, who knocked out Real Madrid in the previous round. Another tight game followed as Ajax cancelled out Grbic’s early opener after half an hour. But the Dutch side had two players receive straight red cards and Sporting took advantage through Mesquita and Villarreal’s 95th-minute third. Sporting probably had the better of the second leg in Amsterdam but Ajax scored after half an hour and the visitors held on for a 3-2 aggregate win.
Their reward for that was another reunion with one of Lazaró’s former club as they faced off against 2049 winners Wolfsburg in the semis. Despite leaving seven years ago, Wolfsburg’s starting 11 still contained nine players he managed. And his first match at the new Kevin De Bruyne Park started very nicely as his main man Mesquita tucked home after six minutes. Wolfsburg had the better of the game but couldn’t find a way past the excellent Caballero, and Mares wrapped up an impressive 2-0 win on 69 minutes.
But things got really tasty in the second leg. Mesquita was at it again, latching onto a Mares pass and swept it home on 34 minutes. However, he immediately got injured and, out of nowhere, Wolfsburg got two goals back just before half-time through Fernando Musarella and Arnaud Diomandé then a third just after it by Edson Calilsto – all from corners. That stunned Sporting back into life as superb play by Villarreal teed up Mares to tap home and put them back in front after an hour. But Wolfsburg responded yet again 11 minutes later through Diomandé! But the defining moment came as substitute Lassen was brought down clean through on goal and tucked home the resulting penalty. Lazaró went defensive and they just about managed to hold off his former club to reach the Final, but what a match this was!
Title battle with Porto
Despite only losing once and conceding eight goals all season, Sporting only led rivals Porto by five points with five games remaining. And both sides had relatively easy run-ins.
Game 1 – Portimonense (6th, home): The run-in started well as Madsen, now accustomed to his new midfield role, opened the scoring after 18 minutes. Sporting dominated the game and Geílson Matías eventually added a second on 80 minutes, before Portimonense got an injury-time consolation with their only shot on target. Porto thumped bottom side Arouca 5-1 away.
Game 2 – Arouca (18th, home): Arouca weren’t a good team and Sporting eased past them 2-0, but it should have been far more comfortable. Villarreal and Mares goals were enough but Mesquita missed a penalty and missed several more chances. Porto also won, 4-2 at home to Tondela.
Game 3 – Tondela (8th, away): It looked like the first slip-up of the run-in was coming at Tondela, who took a deserved lead after 61 minutes. But Sporting pushed and that man Mesquita stepped up yet again, equalising in the 76th minute then winning it in the fourth minute of injury time – with both goals assisted by Grbic. Porto also won again, 3-0 at Feirense.
Game 4 – Feirense (9th, home): With his contract expiring in the summer, this could well be Lazaró’s final game at Estádio José Alvalade. And it could be one hell of an occasion as, if Sporting won, they would be champions of Portugal for the third year in a row. They started well, hitting the bar before Grbic raced through to score after nine minutes then Salazar doubled the lead after half an hour. A rare Geílson Martíns goal made it three before Feirense got a red card after an hour and Machado made it four to round off a dominant display, in which they could easily have scored 10!
Sporting CP were Champions of Portugal for the third consecutive season and wrapped up the league and cup treble!!
They celebrated the league title on Lazaró’s 72nd birthday, but he threw in a fully changed 11 to rest players for the Taca de Portugal and Champions League finals and they lost 4-1 to Nacional! Porto held up their end of the bargain and impressively finished just two points behind Sporting, who racked up 90 points and 80 goals and only conceded 14.
Mesquita was second-top scorer with 24 in 29, only behind Porto striker Pablo who scored 30. Caballero broke his own league record with 24 clean sheets in 32 games and Sporting players dominated the average rating rankings led by Grbic’s 7.75 and Aires’ 7.69.
Champions League Final
Having seen off a former club in an epic semi, Lazaró’s return was another former club in the Final. Liverpool defeated Man UFC on penalties to take on first-time finalists Sporting. Liverpool were huge favourites at 11/10 to win their ninth Champions League crown, with Sporting at a generous 2/1.
Mesquita had been out injured for a month and Villarreal picked up a knock, but both passed fitness tests for the big game. So Lazaró lined up:
Caballero; Rubiano, Aires, Veríssimo, Acevedo; Mares, Geílson Matías, Madsen; Villarreal; Mesquita, Grbic
Subs: Lassen, Viáfara, Gil, Antonio, Martínez, Machado, Liberato, Salazar, Mofokeng, Tas, José
Sporting made a bright start as Mesquita hit the bar inside five minutes then Grbic forced a great save out of the keeper five minutes later. But a very even first-half ended 0-0. Liverpool took control after the break, racking up 16 shots in the second half alone as Sporting struggled to contain them. And the favourites came close to nicking it, hitting the post in the 87th minute before Caballero pulled off a stunning save from Miguel in the final minute.
A quiet extra-time period followed but Caballero made two more great saves to force the game to penalties. Both teams scored their five penalties, then tucked home their sixth, but vice-captain Aires saw his spot-kick saved and defender Ismael Traoré won it for Liverpool. But Lazaró was so proud of his players’ efforts – especially Caballero who played an 8.8 after making 13 saves.
What a great season this had been – another league title, both domestic cups and the cruelest of defeats to what is probably the best team in the world in the European showdown.
Mesquita led the way with 37 goals in 43 games and won the Champions League Golden Boot with 11 goals in 12 games. He was followed by Grbic and Villarreal with 18, Mares with 13 and the promising Salazar with 10 in 22. Mares led the assists chart with 17, followed by Grbic (16), Villarreal (14) and Salazar (9). Grbic averaged a 7.66 in 43 games, which won him fans’ player of the season, and only two players didn’t average over a 7.00 – both the ball-winning midfielders.
Next steps on the adventure
Lazaró ended the season with his 26th league title and, for the first time in his career, won three on the bounce and won the domestic league and cup double (treble). But, despite reaching the ripe old age of 72, he wasn’t ready to let up yet. And he was out of contract in the summer so he was looking to take on a new challenge. There were plenty popping up as the season concluded, largely as there were new title winners in every country other than England and Holland – including Lille becoming French champions for the first time since 2021, which means PSG are now six years without winning the league.
However, possibly the most intriguing option came courtesy of the Italian title development, as Inter won the league and reigning champions AC Milan finished fifth. In the week of the Wolfsburg second leg, Milan sacked their manager, Lazaró was linked to it and he was offered an interview. And, three days after wrapping up the Portuguese title, he was offered the chance to move to Italy and double his salary – which he agreed to take at the end of the season.
Lazaró was a little sad to be leaving this very exciting Sporting squad. He had little doubt the squad would get ripped apart on his departure, and he definitely had a few in mind to take with him to Italy.
Join us next time to discover the situation awaiting Robinho Lazaró in Milan!
Leave a Reply