Pumas won the first league trophy of 2069/70 and finished runner-up in the second, while reaching the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League during Robinho Lazaró’s first six months in charge.
The next challenge for the Colombian/Brazilian boss was to try and keep hold of his exciting young players – two of whom were probably the best two youngsters in the world – amid interest from Europe. But when Red Bull Salzburg agreed to Lazaró’s demands of £40 million for star striker Lucas, he had no option but to accept – only for Lucas to turn them down as they only offered him £7,000-per-week! Lazaró wasn’t sure whether to be happy or furious, given Pumas’ shaky financial position.
But they eventually managed to hold on to Lucas, as well as attacking midfielder Nogueira, who teams completely lost interest in despite his £6.75 million minimum release clause, striker Josué Vera, who remained wanted by Lille, and centre-back Fernando Álvarez, who was wanted by Ajax.
Lazaró agreed to let goalkeeper Nicolas Rengifo join Cruz Azul for £6 million and replaced him with 6ft 5in Mexican stopper Juan Pablo González for £3 million from Juárez. That gives Pumas three promising young goalies to work with and reduces their registered non-Mexican players to seven of the maximum nine. Lazaró raided cash-strapped Querétaro to bring in centre-back/left-back Roberto Salinas, who came through the Pumas academy, and midfielder Guillermo Cornejo for £1.2 million apiece.
Lazaró also promoted exciting 5ft 5in 16-year-old winger Alberto Mejía, who’s retraining as a centre midfielder, into the first team. He’s already the seventh-best midfielder at the club, so it effectively counted as a new midfield signing and Lazaró felt no need to strengthen his attacking options.
Pumas’ squad now contained 10 players with 5-star potential and 17 of the 23-man first-team squad had at least 4.5-star potential. Only three of the squad are aged over 21 and only Wbeymar Riascos (33) is over the age of 29, with the club’s average age now down to just 21.0. And Lazaró felt no need to move away from the 4-3-1-2 that worked nicely last season:
A mass of cup competitions
The cup competitions were piling up during the first half of the season, including Copa MX, the Leagues Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League group.
The 2070/71 season began with a Champions Trophy showdown against Monterrey at The Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Pumas dominated the game, racking up 23 shots to seven, and made one count as midfielder Luciano Cruzalta secured a 1-0 win, extending Pumas’ record Champions Trophy wins to 15.
That success sent them into Campeones Cup at 2069 MLS Cup winners FC Cincinnati – who’d since sacked their manager. The game took place at Cincinnati’s stadium, which seemed a little unfair, while Pumas had nine first-team players on international duty! But those remaining were still good enough to rack up an amazing 46 shots and thump Cincinnati 4-1 led by a Lucas brace and two Nogueira assists.
Lazaró was also selected to lead Mexican All-Stars against MLS All-Stars – which bizarrely took place on the same day as Pumas’ opening Copa MX group game! Also odd was the squad selection, which had no right-backs and an overload of wingers, so Lazaró went for an 4-1-3-2 formation with a winger at right-back, a holding midfielder and three attacking midfielders. Four Pumas players were in his starting 11 and played a key role as Vera scored twice and Lucas once in a thrilling 5-3 win.
The first round of the Leagues Cup, which combines MLS and Liga MX sides, took Pumas to Toronto FC and Nogueira’s 30th-minute strike sent them through. Next was a trip to Nashville and a wild game that ended 5-5 led by a hat-trick from young striker Eduardo Manzotti. And Pumas snuck through 3-0 on penalties. A semi-final with Deportivo Guadalajara saw a fully rotated side hammer them 5-2 led by a Manzotti brace.
In the final, they took on Philadelphia Union, who just finished top of MLS and Lazaró lined up:
González; Burgueno, Álvarez, Riascos, Salinas; Mejía, Rojas, Cedillo; Nogueira; Vera, Lucas
Subs: Manzotti, Agudelo, González, Cruzalta, García, Ramírez, Díaz
Vera had an early goal disallowed before he and Nogueira missed big one-on-one opportunities and Philadelphia hit the post. Vera headed home the opener on 52 minutes then Philadelphia scored two quickfire goals to take an undeserved lead. But Lucas levelled things up to take it to penalties. Vera missed Pumas’ second penalty and Philadelphia scored all of theirs until they hit their fifth straight at González. Pumas scored three more in sudden death and González came up big again to save Philadelphia’s ninth spot-kick to win Pumas’ first Leagues Cup in 30 years!
Pumas unsurprisingly lost their first Copa MX game as Lazaró threw in the reserves, who managed to win their next two games then won a 6-4 thriller at home to Xolos Tijuana led by a Manzotti hat-trick, which ensured they qualified for the quarter-finals.
CONCACAF Champions League
Pumas’ Champions League Group saw them paired with Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders, Forge FC and Lazaró’s former side Puebla FC. Lazaró threw Mejía in for his debut in the opener at home to Salt Lake and he played well and got an assist as a Nogueira brace led a 4-0 win. They lost 2-0 at Puebla then Nogueira took things to a whole new level as he scored an incredible double hat-trick and an assist in a 9-1 battering of Forge! Mejía scored his first senior goal in a 2-0 win at Seattle to help his side advance.
So Lazaró came out of that cup overload winning the Champions Trophy, Leagues Cup and the All-Stars Game, and reached the Copa MX quarter-finals and qualified from the Champions League group.
Liga MX Apertura defence begins
In amongst the cup chaos, Pumas’ Apertura defence began in style as a Nogueira brace alongside goals from Vera, Lucas and Manzotti secured a 5-1 hammering of Necaxa. A first loss followed 2-1 at Monterrey. Mejía also got an assist on his league debut as Pumas thumped Xolos Tijuana 4-0, in which Vera scored the quickest-ever Liga MX goal after 17 seconds.
The competition overload meant Lazaró had to heavily rotate and Pumas’ form was a little up and down. But every team was in the same boat, and a Lucas hat-trick-inspired 3-0 win at Tigres, in which Mejía bagged an assist for a third consecutive game, took them top of Apertura after 11 games.
They had a slightly shaky conclusion to the season, but made up for it as a heavily rotated side hammered Pachuca 7-1 inspired by a hat-trick from midfielder Luis Enrique García, who’s now wanted by Lyon, and a Nogueira brace.
Mejía scored his first league goal in the final game of the Apertura league, a 3-1 win at Deportivo Toluca. That helped Pumas finish second with 34 points from 17, three points back from Monterrey.
The quarter-finals saw them take on Atlas Guadalajara and García, playing up top in place of the injured Lucas, scored two to win the away leg 3-1. The home leg marked Lazaró’s 2,300th game in football and a rotated side also won 3-1 thanks to a Manzotti brace.
That set up a semi-final clash with Puebla and the games overload caught up with Pumas as they fell to a 3-0 first leg defeat. And a 4-2 home win wasn’t enough to avoid a semi-final exit. And Puebla went on to win Apertura, defeating Monterrey 3-2 on aggregate in the final.
The end for one young starlet
Pumas’ young stars shone yet again in this half-season, in which Pumas had already played 35 matches and won an unusual treble of Champions Trophy, Campeones Cup and Leagues Cup. Nogueira led the way with 17 goals and 12 assists, followed by Manzotti’s amazing 17 goals and seven assists in 21 games and Lucas’ 16 goals and 15 assists in 27 games. Mejía scored three and got six assists with a 7.51 average rating from 18 games and Lucas won the FIFA Best U21 Men’s Player award.
But time was up for at least one of them as teams finally met Nogueira’s ridiculously low minimum fee clause. And the attacking midfielder joined FC Utrecht for just £6.75 million in January 2071.
How would Lazaró’s Pumas side fare without their star man? And could Lazaró bring in a suitable replacement? Join us tomorrow to find out!