Robinho Lazaró wrapped up title number 39 on his Aventuras Américas journey as his River Plate dominated the Argentinian league, led largely by the sensational form of attacking midfielder and club captain Alejo Zalazar.
89-year-old Lazaró considered packing in what was very much now a young man’s game. But the title specialist decided to give it at least another season, to become what has to be the first professional Football Manager managing in their 90s. He was also eyeing up a surely unmatched 40th national title of his career.
Lazaró decided to ignore the club’s ability to make money disappear and spend the £15 million transfer budget the River board had given him. He did great deals for three potential superstars from his homeland Colombia. 18-year-old midfielder Carlos Orozco cost £1.5 million from Envigado, midfield playmaker Didier Velasquez cost just £975,000 from Millionarios, and 6ft 4in striker Andrés Sierra looked like a bargain at £1 million from Atlético Nacional.
That had the squad looking in great shape, with a solid defence and an even better attack. And Lazaró stuck with the 4-3-1-2 approach that got the best out of star man Zalazar.
Copa Argentina defence
River began the new season with a bang as Zalazar scored five and Orozco and Sierra both scored on their debuts in an 8-2 battering of Nueva Chicago in the Copa Argentina sixth round. But significant fixture overload saw Lazaró throw the reserves in and lose to Atl. Tucumán in the quarter-final.
Copa Libertadores knockouts
River also resumed their Copa Libertadores campaign before their league defence kicked off. The second round saw them take on another of Lazaró’s former Brazilian foes, Corinthians. River edged the home leg 2-1 then a 1-1 draw in Brazil sent River through, much to Lazaró’s surprise – especially as Corinthians had 27 shots, forcing Adrián Brandán into an incredible 16 saves!
Another old Brazilian foe as River again took on Flamengo in the quarter-finals. River had a horrible record against Flamengo, winning just five of 21 meetings and their only win in the last 10 was in the group stage. That trend continued with a 2-2 home draw then a 1-1 draw in Rio, which took them to penalties. Both teams scored their first four penalties, River scored their fifth and Brandán came up big to save Flamengo’s fifth!
That teed up an all-Argentinian semi-final as River faced Libertadores, while Boca played Santos in the other. River dominated the home leg with 22 shots to 10 and made one count as Martínez volleyed home on 68 minutes, in a game that set a new club gate receipts record of £800,000 following an 82,794 stadium sellout for just the second time during Lazaró’s time at the club.
Lazaró gave the starting 11 four days off and dropped them all for the league match between the two legs. The return leg hinged on a mad three minutes early in the first half. Midfielder Biel López Vázquez scored after 17 minutes only for Independiente to equalise a minute later, then Sierra tapped home to make it 2-1 after 19 minutes! And that proved to be the only goalmouth action – sending River Plate into the Final.
Meanwhile, Boca beat Santos 5-0 at home then drew 0-0 in Brazil to tee up the tastiest of Copa Libertadores Finals!
Quest for title number 40 begins
River began the defence of their title at home to Juv. Unida and strolled to a 3-0 win through Sierra, Zalazar and striker Jonathan Martínez. That set the tone for a strong start, winning three out of three, including a 5-0 win at Estudiantes courtesy of 39 shots and Zalazar and Sierra braces. A big test came with an early Superclásico clash and a trip to Boca, who’d again had a sticky start drawing two of their first three. But they responded to the big game by hammering River 4-1, with the rivals sharing 47 shots.
River responded well, dominating leaders Vélez with 26 shots to three and made one count through Zalazar’s penalty. That sparked a run of six unbeaten, including a 5-2 win at Lazaró’s former club Newell’s led by a Sierra hat-trick, before a surprise 1-0 loss at Argentinos Jrs. But they recovered to win six on the bounce, largely thanks to stunning form from the rapidly improving Sierra, who scored eight in those five games including another hat-trick in a 7-0 thumping of struggling Colegiales.
But River’s form was usurped by Banfield, who’d lost once and drawn twice before the top two faced off in early November. But River had much the better of the game with 20 shots to seven and that man Sierra made one count, finishing off a nice team move just after the break to send them top of the league. And at the halfway point, River led Boca and Banfield by 5 points.
Superclásico Libertadores Final
Football matches do not come any bigger than this. The Superclásico itself is absolutely massive. But for these two Buenos Aires giants to face off in the Final of Copa Libertadores to decide the Champions of South America. That’s whole new levels. And this is only the second ever Libertadores Final to feature the pair following the two-legged affair in 2018. It was also River’s first trip to the Final in 23 years, since they won it in 2049, and only their second in this entire save.
60,000 Argentines descended on Uruguay and the Estadio Centenario to witness this historic event. Both sides had a 12-day layoff ahead of the big game, so Lazaró took the rare opportunity to rest his entire squad for four days. Annoyingly, he had midfielders Marlon Garcia suspended and Velásquez was cup-tied, but he had a clean bill of health otherwise. So he lined up:
Brandán; Navarro, Reyes, Aloisi, Vidal; Vázquez, Bisogno, Orozco; Zalazar; Sierra, Martinez
Subs: R González, Barrios, Oliva, Pellegrini, Alexandre, Córdoba, Franco, M González, Bogado
Sierra had an early goal disallowed for offside, but that was swiftly forgotten as Vázquez unleashed an absolute thunderbolt into the bottom corner after 21 minutes. Boca were offering absolutely nothing and Sierra should have made them pay when he hit the post three minutes before the break.
But River finally got their reward as a beautiful Zalazar pass sent Martínez through to double the lead 10 minutes after the break. Boca should have been level with their first shot on target after 72 minutes, as they forced a wonder save out of Adrián Brándan down low at his near post. Lazaró sat back, especially after Zalazar got injured, to hold Boca off and secure a 2-0 victory.
River Plate won their 7th and Lazaró’s 3rd Copa Libertadores!!
This latest success took Lazaró to 38 career cup competition wins, along with 39 league titles! But he wasn’t done yet, as he was intent on maintaining his side’s league form to wrap up title number 40.
Plus he now had the added incentive of trying to become officially the greatest Football Manager of all time. He trailed Julian Nagelsmann by 328 points in the Hall of Fame – despite having won more than twice as many trophies – with several competitions still up for grabs.
Could Lazaró become the greatest ever? Join us tomorrow to find out!