Aventuras Américas | Part 88 | Pumas #4: Magnificent Mejía and Manzotti

Pumas bid farewell to their soon-to-be superstar midfielder Nogueira for a scandalously low fee as the clock ticked over to 2071. Robinho Lazaró now somehow had to replace the Brazilian’s club-leading goals and assists with a minimal budget.

More clubs from Europe renewed interest in Pumas’ other starlet Lucas, but their offers didn’t come close to Lazaró’s valuation of the player. That was until Lille stepped up with a £41 million bid, which smashed the club’s record sale. So Pumas lost their best two players in the same transfer window!

Lazaró couldn’t find anyone to replace Nogueira so gave Eduardo Manzotti a deserved chance as first-choice and promoted 18-year-old striker Ángel Barrientos to the first team. He also replaced Lucas with Argentinian striker Nicolás Reynoso, who can also play as the attacking midfielder and scored 15 in 21 last season, for £6 million from his former club Godoy Cruz and signed promising centre-back Samuel Estrada on a free from Real Santander.

But the departure of Lucas, who was a perfect complete forward, forced Lazaró to switch up his approach slightly, moving the advanced forward across to the left and using Josué Vera as a deep-lying forward.

Into Torneo Clausura

Clausura began with a solid 3-0 win at Necaxa with Lucas scoring twice on his final appearance for the club and the exciting Alberto Mejía bagging two assists. They lost at Cruz Azul but Manzotti bagged his 20th of the season in a 3-1 win at Deportivo Guadalajara.

But the form was a little shaky, including three consecutive draws against Monterrey, Xolos and Juárez. But, after resting the first team for a week, they stepped things up as Manzotti and Vera both scored in a 3-0 win at home to leaders Puebla. Reynoso scored his first goal alongside a Vera brace in a 4-0 thumping of rivals Club América and a rotated side managed to beat Tigres 2-1.

Manzotti bagged a hat-trick in a 4-2 win at Querétaro, which took him to 30 goals for the season and broke the club record of 29 set by Lucas last season! Clausura concluded with a couple more draws then a rotated side beat Toluca 3-1 on the final day with Barrientos scoring his first league goal. Pumas finished third for the second season in a row, four points back from Cruz Azul with 35 points from 17 games, which was five more than last season, scoring a league-high 37 and conceding 16.

Concluding the cup chaos

After the onslaught of cup competitions through the first half of the season, Pumas had the latter stages of Copa MX and the CONCACAF Champions League to look forward to, which were competitions that eluded Lazaró during his spell with Puebla FC.

Copa MX

Pumas beat Deportivo Guadalajara in the Copa MX second round with the exciting Barrientos scoring the only goal. A much tougher task saw them visit league leaders Puebla and gain a hard-fought 0-0 thanks to nine saves from Juan Pablo González. And the keeper continued the heroics by saving Puebla’s sixth spot-kick to nick it 5-4 on penalties. That teed up a semi-final with Pachuca and a brilliant hat-trick from attacking midfielder Marcos Cedillo, who’s just broken into the Mexico squad, inspired a 4-0 success.

Pumas were into their first Copa MX final for the first time in five years, hoping to win the competition for the first time in 27 years. And their opponent was new league leaders Cruz Azul. Pumas had the better of the early stages until Cruz Azul missed an absolute sitter with their first shot then took the lead with a dodgy penalty. Pumas never recovered from that blow and slipped to a tepid 1-0 loss.

CONCACAF Champions League knockouts

The second round paired Pumas with MLS side Charlotte FC. They took control with a 4-1 first leg win inspired by a Manzotti hat-trick and a rotated side won 3-0 away. Yet another clash with Lazaró’s former side Puebla followed in the quarter-finals – taking them to nine meetings since Lazaró arrived one year ago! – began with a dull 0-0 draw in the home leg. An equally tense game at the giant Puebla FC Stadium saw the home side take an early lead. But Manzotti struck in the 69th minute to earn a 1-1 draw that sent Pumas through on away goals.

Another all-Mexican clash followed against Tigres, against whom Lazaró’s Pumas had only lost once in five meetings. That streak ended as they lost 3-2 at home despite a quickfire Mejía double putting them 2-0 ahead after half an hour. But they fired back in style as the exceptional Manzotti scored an outrageous five-goal haul to inspire a 5-1 victory and reach the Final. And, as a real rarity, Pumas only had 15 shots to Tigres’ 17 and scored five of their seven on target. But Manzotti’s effort had to be one of the greatest individual performances of Lazaró’s entire career.

One week after the Copa MX disappointment, Pumas had another chance at silverware as they took on another Mexican side Club Necaxa in the CONCACAF Champions League. Could Lazaró wrap up a third continental title?

His side got off to a flyer as Cedillo sent Manzotti through to score inside three minutes. The two players combined again 13 minutes later as Manzotti seized on a loose ball and put in a low cross for Cedillo to double the lead. They dominated the first half, had 12 shots to two and settled for 2-0 at the break. And nothing changed after the break as Pumas restricted Necaca to one shot and eased to a 2-0 success.

Pumas UNAM won the CONCACAF Champions League and wrapped up a cup quadruple!

Clausura Playoffs

Pumas got a tough draw in the quarter-final as they faced reigning champions Monterrey, who finished sixth in Clausura. But they took control led by another stunning Manzotti performance, bagging a hat-trick alongside a Cedillo brace to inspire a 5-1 thumping. That allowed Lazaró to rotate and they progressed with a 0-0 at home.

The semis predictably set up another clash with Puebla. A thrilling home leg saw Pumas race into a 4-0 lead inside 53 minutes thanks to another Manzotti double and goals from Cedillo and Vera. But Puebla two goals back to make the return leg interesting. A 4-2 win saw Pumas set a new record 95 goals in a Liga MX season. But could they reach the Clausura Final again? Yes! Because Vera as at the double along with another Manzotti strike as they won 3-2 at Lazaró’s former club to seal a 7-4 aggregate win.

Their opponent in the Final was league winners Cruz Azul, who Pumas had beaten once in seven matches. And so it proved again as Cruz Azul nicked a 1-0 win at Estadio Olímpico Universitario. Both sides had great chances early in the second leg but Cruz Azul struck first after half an hour and that was enough for their third 1-0 win in a row over Pumas. So Pumas fell at the Final stage for a second successive season.

Exciting times at Pumas

This was a pretty incredible season at Pumas, as Lazaró led the club to a famous quadruple despite not winning either of the two league competitions and losing his best two players. He was especially proud of the fact that his squad was packed with exciting young talent.

Potentially the most exciting of those is incredible 17-year-old Mejía. The homegrown midfielder was exceptional ever since his debut with eight goals, 11 assists and a 7.51 average rating in 45 games. And that was recognised by winning NxGn 2071, which included Daniel Burgueno (7th) and Estrada (23rd).

The prolific Manzotti took his opportunity after Lucas’ department, obliterating the Brazilian’s club record tally with 42 goals plus 14 assists and an incredible 7.83 average rating in 49 appearances. He top-scored in both Liga MX (22 in 26) and the CONCACAF Champions League (10 in 7) and won fans’ player and young player of the season.

Vera also impressed with 19 goals, a club record-equalling 22 assists and a 7.59 average rating in 54 games, which won him Mexican Player of the Season and Attacker of the Season. Cedillo scored 13 and got 11 assists in 55 games and the backup midfielders also chipped in as Luis Enrique García scored 18 with five assists in 56 games, of which 30 were from the bench, Jesús Ramírez scored eight and got five assists and Guillermo Cornejo scored four and got 16 assists. Centre-back Fernando Álvarez performed well too with a 7.44 average rating earning him Mexican Defender of the Season. And all of those players are 22 or under.

But there was even more to come thanks to a stellar youth intake that boasted five “elite talents” and three top talents. The stars of the intake were attacking midfielder Juan Carlos Tamay and midfielder Derick Guadarrama, along with striker Armando Lorona, midfielder Octavio Granillo and centre-back Marcelo Ávalos. While defenders Miguel Martínez and Juan Quintero and goalkeeper Juan Carlos Álvarez also have four-star potential.

Lazaró was loving his time at Pumas so had no hesitation in accepting another one-year deal, which upped his wages to £10,000-per-week just before his 87th birthday.

Can Pumas continue their success under Lazaró and win that elusive Clausura title? Join us tomorrow to find out!

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