After 51 years as a Football Manager, it had long been Robinho Lazaró’s dream to lead one of the big Buenos Aires sides. And now he finally had his chance, as underperforming River Plate looked to the title specialist as their saviour.
If anyone could do it, it was probably Lazaró, as he celebrated the 38th league title and 74th trophy of his long managerial career to sign off from Pumas in style by winning Liga MX Clausura. But he now had a real challenge on his hands, as River finished a lowly by their standards fifth place in 2072.
River Plate in 2072
Club Atlético River Plate finished a huge 21 points back from arch-rivals Boca Juniors last season and 12 points behind fourth-place Vélez. They last won the title in 2068 but have only been Argentinian champions twice since 2033 (that’s 39 years!).
The club still has exceptional youth recruitment and youth coaching but only adequate training facilities and average training facilities, and now plays at the massive 82,794-capacity Marcelo Gallardo Park, which was built in 2029. And the finances are surprisingly not bad, with £9 million in the bank – and Lazaró was expecting much worse.
Lazaró’s new board expects him to play attacking, entertaining football, develop players using the youth system and, somewhat bizarrely, sign Uruguayan players. Their expectations on the pitch are surprisingly low, apparently expecting just a top-half finish with a view to challenging for the title next season.
The best player at River was impressive attacking midfielder Alejo Zalazar, along with solid holding midfielder / centre-back Sebastián Aloisi and playmaker Faber Lozano, striker Alex Garcete who would be amazing if he could finish, and a familiar face in Lazaró’s former Universitario centre-back Vicente Reyes, who was one of the better players along with 22-year-olds goalkeeper Adrián Brandén and striker Jonathan Martínez.
In terms of prospects, there are a few in the first-team, including 20-year-old midfielder Juan Carlos Córdoba and 21-year-old holding midfielder Gabriel Bisogno. But worryingly, given the club’s youth recruitment, there wasn’t a lot to shout about in the youth sides.
However, several of the players had been transfer listed due to the club’s “perilous financial situation,” which seemed a little over the top although they had just sold a player to Real Madrid for £6.5 million who’s now worth over £90 million – which told Lazaró they’d been flogging players on the cheap. Speaking of which, his former side Pumas immediately sold midfield sensation Alberto Mejía to Feyenoord for £10.5 million and he’s instantly worth over £100 million!
Nevertheless, Lazaró got to work on restoring the financial situation, selling off 13 players for a profit of £4 million. And that still left him with barely any transfer budget. But he did manage to meet the board’s demand for Uruguayan players by bringing in exciting midfielder Biel López Vázquez for just £215,000 from Defensor Sporting.
Lazaró returns in style
The Argentinian league runs on a similar timeframe to Europe, starting in July and ending in May. The media have River to finish fourth at 6/1 to win the league. Boca are favourites at 11/5 closely followed by Independiente at 13/5 then Banfield at 9/2. Interestingly, both of Lazaró’s former clubs are now in the top tier. Godoy Cruz have fallen away in recent years and are expected to finish 16th at 400/1 to win the league but Newell’s Old Boys have been promoted and are expected to finish eighth at 100/1 for the title.
Lazaró’s return to Liga Profesional Fútbol saw River visit Patronato, dominate and take a three-goal lead through a Garcete brace and Zalazar. but they conceded twice in three minutes to make things interesting, much to the disappointment of their manager despite a winning start.
His first match in charge at Marcelo Gallardo Park was against Estudiantes, and they dominated again, racking up 31 shots to six and won 2-0 through Martínez and Córdoba.
Zalazar and Garcete goals made it three from three at Argentinos Jrs. then hammered Colegiales 5-0 with a Zalazar hat-trick and Vázquez’s first goal for the club to go top of the league as Boca lost. That teed up Lazaró’s first return to Newell’s since leaving them for Godoy 32 years ago. And River dropped their first points in a 1-1 draw with Zalazar scoring yet again.
An even bigger game followed as Lazaró led River into his first ever Superclásico against Boca. His teamtalk got the River boys suitably fired up as they raced into a 2-0 inside seven minutes through Zalazar and Vázquez. They continued to control the game, having 28 shots to Boca’s nine, and the visitors couldn’t find an answer. A 2-0 success took River seven points clear of Boca after six games!
That really gave River confidence as they backed it up by going to Boca Unidos and thrashing them 8-0 led by Martínez scoring four and a Zalazar brace. Before another huge game saw Lazaró take on another former side and bottom of the league Godoy. And River kept them there, racking up 38 shots en route to winning 3-0.
But River’s strong start caught up them as European teams showed interest in their star performers. Liverpool put in a derisory bid for Garcete as did Arsenal for Lozano, which Lazaró managed to negotiate up to a much-needed club record £26.5 million, which replaced that of Javier Saviola to Barcelona in 2001 and broke the national record sale.
It didn’t affect their form though as River raced to seven straight league wins, including Zalazar’s brace inspiring a 3-0 win over Guillermo Brown, before finally falling to defeat in a feisty game at Juv. Unida, in which River had two red cards and the hosts got a red card and six yellows.
River bounced back to defeat second-place Vélez 3-0, in which both teams again had players sent off early on, then third-place Independiente 2-0 in consecutive home games. Zalazar bagged two more brace to down fifth-place Banfield 3-1 away then Estudiantas 2-0 before hammering Defensa y Justicia and Godoy Cruz 6-1 in back-to-back matches. And a 3-0 win over Boca Unidos came on the same day Boca capitulated 5-0 at Vélez.
That took River into a month-long winter break having only failed to win twice and with just one defeat. Lazaró’s side has rattled in a sensational 69 goals in 22 games, only conceded 11 and enjoys a massive 14-point lead over Boca, who recovered from being 11th after seven games, and 18-point gap to third-place Banfield.
Lazaró’s first responsibility as River manager was in Copa Argentina, which the board wanted to reach the final of and they had a massive chance to win as Boca had already been knocked out by a second-tier side. No pressure. But they made one step towards that in his first game in charge, thumping Racing Club 4-1 in the sixth round led by a Zalazar brace and goals by both strikers Garcete and Martínez.
A heavily rotated side beat Vélez 3-2 in the seventh round then thumped third-tier Acassuso 7-1 in the quarter-final, which saw them already break the record for most goals in a campaign. And they booked their place in the Final with a 3-1 win over Banfield.
10-time winners River’s opponent in the Final was Boca Unidos, who were playing in only their second-ever Final and first in 30 years. Lazaró had no injury concerns so lined up:
Brandán; Navarro, Reyes, Aloisi, Vidal; Vázquez, Garcia, Pellegrini; Zalazar; Martínez, Garcete
Subs: R González, M González, Oliva, Córdoba, Bogado, Bisogno, Franco
The game started quietly but River made the breakthrough on 20 minutes as lovely play by Martínez teed up Garcete to curl home. Five minutes later, Vázquez hit a 25-yeard thunderbolt and it looked all over already. And it certainly was when Zalazar curled home a delicious 30-yard free-kick then Martínez raced through a Brandán clearance to make it four before the break! Zalazar hit the post with an identical free-kick and River wasted a mass of chances after the break, as they racked up 39 shots. But they eventually settled for 4-0.
River Plate won Copa Argentina!
Lazaró had enjoyed a fine start to life with River, seeing his side dominate Liga Profesional de Fútbol and wrap up Copa Argentina in his first six months in charge. Zalazar leads the league with 21 goals, 11 assists, six player of the match awards and an outrageous 8.34 average rating. While Zalazar, Garcete and Martínez have 61 goals and 30 assists between them at around the halfway mark of the season!
And surely no-one can stop them from wrapping up a league and cup double? Join us tomorrow to find out!