Robinho Lazaró inspired a superb turnaround in form during his first six months in charge of Vasco da Gama. But could his promising young team continue that heading into 2066?
The new year began with two full-backs retiring and Lazaró moving on several more of the squad’s elder statesmen. While clubs from Europe and North America looked to cash in on Vasco players’ minimum fee release clauses, including wonderkid centre-back Samuel moving to Hannover for £10.75 million. But striker Denis rejected a £31 million move to Cruz Azul!
Lazaró addressed the balance by promoting promising striker Bruno César, wingers Thiago and Isaac, midfielders Arthur and Erivelton and centre-back Thales Henrique.
He added further youth with exciting striker Joao for £3.3 million from Palmeiras and winger Juan Arenas, whose loan turned into a £1.3 million move from Independiente Santa Fe. They were later joined by left-winger Alexsander and center-back Fábio André for £5.5 million and £2 million from rivals Fluminense.
That takes the first-team squad to 14 players with 5-star potential and eight with 4- or 4.5-stars. Plus another seven players with 5-star and 10 with 4- or 4.5-star potential in the reserves and under 20 squads. And Lazaró opted to stick with the 4-3-3 DM approach he utilised at the end of last season – with a first-choice midfield trio of two 19-year-olds and a 20-year-old.
Straight into Rio State
Lazaró had forgotten just how relentless the Brazilian campaign was. But he was swiftly reminded as the Rio State Championship rolled around about a month after the end of Série A. But his young squad started well with a 5-0 away thumping of Bangu with César opening the scoring on his debut.
They were also excellent in defeating rivals Fluminense 3-2 before a narrow 2-1 defeat at Flamengo. Lazaró used the rest of the tournament as an opportunity to blood youngsters and they did well, including Alexsander scoring 12 minutes into his debut in a 3-0 win at Americano. And Vasco finished a respectable third, four points behind their two big rivals.
A semi-final with Flamengo followed, taking them to five meetings in two months! Vasco got a good start with a 1-0 home leg win thanks to Denis’ 48th-minute goal. And Denis was the hero again at Maracana, bagging a brace alongside a José Gómez goal in an unlikely 3-0 win.
The Rio State Final teed up a rival clash between Vasco and Fluminense. Another two-legged affair this time both played at Maracana – which seems like massive overkill – also began well with Vasco winning 2-1 thanks to two goals in a minute just before half-time from Denis and Leonardo Augusto. Six days later, Fluminense were a little lucky to win a game Vasco dominated 1-0. But that sent it to penalties and Fábio Nunes was the hero, saving two of Flamengo’s first three spot kicks.
Vasco da Gama won Rio State Championship for the 4th time in 7 years and Lazaró’s 33rd career title!
In the midst of Rio State, Vasco also competed in the Recopa Sudamericana against Boca Juniors. The first leg was at Vasco and they won 1-0 thanks to a Denis strike a few seconds into the second half. But missed chances cost them as they lost 3-0 in Argentina.
Lazaró returns to Copa Libertadores
As if the fixture overload wasn’t enough, Copa Libertadores groups began in early March. And Vasco got by far the toughest group available alongside Flamengo, Vélez Sarsfield and Ecuadorian side Barcelona.
They began at home to Vélez and got the perfect start thanks to two Joao Francisco penalties, which was wasteful considering they had 28 shots to two! But it was the opposite at Flamengo as a Denis goal completely against the run of play nicked a 1-0 win. Another dominant home win, 4-0 over Barcelona, took Vasco close to qualification, which they confirmed with a 6-0 away demolition of Barcelona led by a late Denis hat-trick. Miraculously, a fully rotated 11 beat Flamengo 1-0 and only lost 2-1 at Vélez.
The second round saw a decent draw against Peruvian side Universitario. Vasco got a good start, winning 3-1 away thanks to a Denis brace and a 0-0 at home eased them through. It got much tougher in the quarter-finals against Boca. Vasco performed superbly to win the home leg 2-0 but the intensity of La Bombanera proved too much as they slipped to a 4-1 away defeat to exit Copa Libertadores. And Boca went on to win it, hammering Santos 4-0 in the Final.
Série A resumes
The Brazilian media certainly didn’t fancy Vasco’s Série A chances, predicting them to finish 10th at 33/1 to win the title. Holders Goianiense were favourites at 11/4 followed by Corinthians (3/1), Avaí (11/2), Cuiaba (8/1), Fluminense (12/1) and Flamengo (20/1).
As if they hadn’t played Flamengo enough, Vasco began at home to Flamengo – a sixth meeting in three months, fourth in a month and Vasco’s 22nd game of the campaign! They’d won the last four meetings but settled for a 0-0, followed by a dominant 3-0 win over Atletico Mineiro led by a Denis brace then a stunning 5-1 win at favourites Goianiense with five different scorers!
The league continued with Sunday-Wednesday matches every week for two months, before a near-month break in mid-June. Lazaró had to rotate at times but his young charges set a Série A record-equalling 25-matches unbeaten before losing 3-2 to Avaí in gameweek eight. Lazaró also passed the 2,100 matches mark as his side marched to a solid sixth-place, four points off the top after 12 games.
More interest from across Europe
The bids rematerialised with a vengeance in June as nearly the entire first-team squad was wanted. Two deals devastated Lazaró as Nunes forced a £17.5 million move to Man City and Joao Francisco forced a £21 million move to Feyenoord. 28-year-old Gómez moved to Galatasaray for £17.5 million, defender Eli joined Rennes for £11.5 million and left-back José Lucas moved to Tigres for £8.5 million.
Lazaró moved quickly to replace Nunes by spending £7.5 million rising to £15 million on Márcio António, who’s an improvement and only conceded nine in 40 games at Avaí. He was joined by exciting attacker Messias Eduardo, who cost £5 million from Palmeiras, attacking midfielder Kellyton Rodrigo for £900,000 from América, winger Victor for £230,000 from Esporte Clube Sao José and 16-year-old striker Renan for £1.9 million from Naútico.
Building on a solid start
Vasco resumed the campaign poorly, losing 1-0 at Fluminense. But Messias Eduardo’s first goal for the club nicked a 1-0 win at home to Gremio before a brilliant 3-0 win at home to second-place Cuiaba and Isaac scoring his first goal to nick a win over Ponte Preta. Their form was a little up and down but they weren’t the only ones, as they reached the halfway mark of Série A six points off the top.
The mass of outgoings and Messias’ rapid improvement saw Lazaró start him up front and move Denis to the left. And the youngster repaid that faith with a brace in a brilliant 4-1 thumping of rivals Flamengo. Vasco were soon threatening the leaders but a 1-0 defeat at Lazaró’s former club Palmeiras saw them fall seven points off the pace at the halfway mark and 10 points back going into the final 10 games.
1-0 wins over Fluminense and Paranaense moved them right back into contention, five points behind leaders Internacional. A draw at Gremio moved them down a place to fifth but one point closer to the leaders with three teams now tied at the top on 63 points. Denis scored the only goal against struggling Santos before a slightly lucky 3-2 win at sixth place Cuiaba confirmed Libertadores qualification.
Exciting title battle
That teed up a thrilling title battle with five teams separated by six points with five games remaining. Goianiense were probably favourites but Vasco arguably had the easiest run-in.
Game 1 – Corinthians (4th, home): The toughest remaining test saw Vasco take on a title rival against Lazaró’s old nemesis Corinthians. They rose to the occasion as Denis’ 30th of the season and Leonardo Augusto earned a 2-1 win. The other three challengers also won.
Game 2 – Ponte Preta (18th, away): Vasco had a few suspensions but Leonardo Augusto scored again before makeshift left-back Otacilio added a second just before half-time to win an even game 2-0. Goianiense won and Internacional drew, so Vasco stayed four points off top.
Game 3 – Cruzeiro (17th, home): Another struggler followed and Vasco just about won 2-1 thanks to Messias Eduardo and Renan Nelson strikes, despite having 29 shots to eight. Goianiense drew while Internacional won, so the top three were split by just two points with two to go!
Game 4 – Juventude (15th, away): But Vasco’s dreams of a double title ended with a 1-1 draw at Juventude, who were easily the better side. And they wrapped up the season by beating Naútico 4-2.
Vasco finished in an impressive third position, only two points back from Goianiense, who defended their title despite drawing on the final day as Internacional lost. They only lost six times and had the second-best attack and third-best defence, scoring 69 and conceding 31. Denis was third-top scorer in the league with 17 in 34, well behind Goianiense striker Patryck Vidal’s 26 in 36.
This season offered plenty of promise for a young Vasco side, whose squad contains only three players over the age of 21! They won Rio State and came close to an unlikely Série A title. Denis was probably the star player with 31 goals and nine assists in 56 appearances, along with Leonardo Augusto’s 17 goals and 12 assists in 51 games. But Lazaró’s favourite player is very much 6ft 5in midfielder Carlos Miguel, who scored 15 and got 12 assists in 51 games from centre midfield.
Vasco had another stellar youth intake led by four “elite talents” in midfielder Jajá, who may be the pick of the bunch, winger Fabrício, goalkeeper Paulo Alexandre and centre-back Carlos Alexandre. It also had two top talents and several players with up to 3-star potential.
Vasco’s efforts this season convinced the board to renew 82-year-old Lazaró’s contract, upping his wages by £1,000 to £12,500-per-week for another 12 months. And he was delighted to extend his stay in Rio. Amd he may well have a new stadium to celebrate if he stays much longer as the board announced they were starting work on the brilliantly named 52,822-capacity Roberto Dinamite Stadium.
Join us on Friday as Lazaró looks to mount a title challenge to Brazil’s dominant force Goianiense!