After just over two years in charge of Pumas UNAM – although it felt a lot longer given the mass of football played in Mexico – Robinho Lazaró was open to a new challenge as his days of management were limited by age.
Now 87, the world-class manager was monitoring his options, especially the shaky role of Julián Bonich at River Plate, who were fifth in Liga Profesional de Fútbol heading into a winter break. But until anything concrete came along, he was happy to stay in Ciudad de México with his exciting young squad.
2072 began with another huge sale as centre-back and captain Fernando Álvarez moved to Leipzig for £27.5 million, which wasn’t bad considering he had one year left on his contract and they originally offered just £5 million. Lazaró decided not to sign a replacement as Edwin Ramírez was ready for more game time and he promoted 16-year-old academy product Marcelo Ávalos.
Seeking Clausura glory
The major tournament evading Lazaró upon his return to Mexico was Liga MX Clausura. But the players had a nice long rest over Christmas and it seemed to have done them good as they scored four goals in the first ten minutes of the Clausura opener at Club León. Attacking midfielder Geovanni Campo scored in the first minute, Josué Vera doubled his Apertura tally inside the first eight minutes and his strike partner Eduardo Manzotti got in on the act two minutes later. Manzotti completed his hat-trick inside 35 minutes and Campo bagged a seventh after the break. And Lazaró realised this was the first time Pumas had ever been top of either the Apertura or Clausura tables during his 27 months in charge!
The deadly strikeforce kept them there as Manzotti went one better to bag four and Vera scored the other in a 5-2 hammering of Querétaro. But they slipped off the top as their losing streak against Cruz Azul extended to nine with a 2-1 defeat.
That didn’t prevent Pumas enjoying a solid start though and a 5-0 hammering of Lazaró’s former club Puebla FC, led by a Manzotti brace and goals by academy product starlet Alberto Mejía, young striker Ángel Barrientos and centre-back Samuel Estrada’s first for the club, sent them back to the top after eight games.
Manzotti kept his stunning form going, scoring five goals in three games as Pumas maintained their lead at the top, before a rotated side only lost 2-1 to Monterrey then drew 1-1 at América with eight players on international duty. That dropped Pumas down to third place but a 5-1 hammering of struggling Pachuca saw them climb back to top spot on goal difference with two games remaining.
Pumas won their final home game 2-0 against Tampico Madero, sending them into the final day leading Cruz Azul on goal difference. And a final day 4-2 win at Santos Laguna led by a Manzotti brace was enough for them to finish top of Liga MX Clausura – which, of course, is irrelevant. Pumas led the way with 29 points, two clear of Cruz Azul, and led the way with an impressive 51 goals in 17 matches!
CONCACAF Champions League knockouts
Pumas’ Champions League defence resumed against Honduran side Motagua. A 4-0 home win, after 42 shots to six, had them in full control and a rotated side eased through with a 3-2 win in Honduras.
A much tougher task followed against Monterrey with the two legs either side of their league clash. Manzotti’s double edged them a 2-1 win in the home leg but they fell to a 3-1 away defeat to bring their defence to an early end.
The Clausura quarter finals saw Pumas drawn with Tigres, who finished 11th in the league. Pumas dominated the away leg and a Marcos Cedillo strike was enough for a narrow victory. The second leg was much tighter, with Tigres taking an early lead that full-back Rafael Díaz cancelled out with a penalty, only for Tigres to restore their lead. Pumas would have progressed anyway, due to being the higher-ranked side, but Manzotti’s last-minute goal made it 3-2 on aggregate.
The semis teed up another reunion with Lazaró’s former club Puebla. His latest return didn’t go overly well as Pumas were inept in a 1-0 defeat. The return leg took place on Lazaró’s 88th birthday and this time his side took an early lead through Cedillo. Puebla equalised on the hour mark and that looked to be enough for them to progress. But Lazaró threw everything at it and eventually got his reward as they were awarded a 93rd-minute penalty. Barrientos, who had one goal in 15 league games, was dubiously entrusted with the responsibility – but he kept his nerve to calmly slam the spot-kick home to make it 2-2 on aggregate. And that sent Pumas through to the Final as the higher ranked side.
For the second time in three years, Pumas took on Cruz Azul, who edged past Monterrey, in the Clausura Final. And that wasn’t good news, considering Pumas haven’t beaten Cruz Azul in 10 attempts!
That trend continued as Cruz Azul raced into a 2-0 lead inside 26 minutes of the first leg. But Pumas struck back with two goals in a minute just before half-time from Diego Dybala and Campo, then two goals in four minutes by Mejía and Manzotti to lead 4-2 after 68 minutes. An inspired Mejía performance, with three assists alongside his goal, gave them a vital lead to take back to Mexico City.
Pumas came out and dominated the first half of the second leg, racking up 14 shots to two before Campo made one count, curling home a lovely effort on 42 minutes. Mejía made things comfortable, making it 2-0 in first-half injury-time, before Manzotti smashed home his 45th goal of the campaign just after the break.
Pumas UNAM were Clausura Champions!
The key player this season has been Manzotti, who set two new club records with his 39 goals in 43 league games and 45 goals in 50 games in all competitions. He also averaged a 7.80 across the season, winning Mexican Attacker of the Season and the fans’ player and young player of the season.
Mejía pushed him close with a club-high 16 assists and 12 goals. He followed up his NxGn 2071 win by coming second in NxGn 2072, only losing out to an incredible Inter 18-year-old centre-back who already has six caps for Italy. Another impressive performer was Campo, who scored 19 goals and got 11 assists in 45 appearances, while Barrientos scored 14 in 28 appearances, of which just 18 were starts.
A massive final challenge?
Lazaró loved his time in Mexico with Pumas but, having added Clausura to his previous Apertura title, it was probably time to move on. And, at the age of 88, this would likely be the final challenge on his Aventuras Américas journey.
The perfect opportunity arrived as River Plate sacked their manager after finishing fifth in Argentina. So Lazaró took matters into his own hands by resigning from Pumas after three years in charge. River wasted no time offering him an interview, asking for staff changes, and offering Lazaró the role.
What kind of challenge awaits Robinho Lazaró in Argentina? And how will he fare at River? Join us tomorrow to find out!