At the ripe old age of 90, Robinho Lazaró was on the verge of the ultimate honour for any Football Manager. The wily old manager was just three points away from becoming the greatest of all time, which meant he just needed to add one more trophy to his outrageous tally of 80 cup and league victories.
Speaking of honour, Lazaró was randomly offered the opportunity to return as Brazil manager after their quarter-final World Cup exit on penalties against Argentina. But Lazaró wasn’t massively interested in going back to international management. And Italy won the 2074 World Cup, making it back to back World Cup wins, defeating Belgium 1-0 in the Final.
His best bet to win a trophy seemed to be sticking with the exciting River Plate squad he had built. With that in mind, he didn’t have to do too much work in the transfer market in the summer of 2074 but they did have a few backup players departing in the summer. So Lazaró looked to bolster the squad with 18-year-old wonderkid midfielder Jason Debruyne on a free transfer from Club Brugge and yet another Colombian in promising centre-back Camilo Clevijo for £425,000 from Deportivo Pereira.
Dropping into Copa Sudamericana
The new season began with the resumption of Copa Sudamericana after holders River had been dumped out of their Copa Libertadores group. They began in the second round against Brazilian side Internacional and started well as midfielders Biel López Vázquez and Didier Velasquez earned a 2-0 home first-leg win. Then goals from Alejo Zalazar and Jonathan Martínez bagged a 2-2 draw to qualify.
Four of the eight remaining sides were Brazilian and River drew another in América Mineiro. They took control in the away leg with an Andrés Sierra brace and a late Martínez strike secured a 3-1 win and a rotated side won 1-0 in Buenos Aires thanks to a rare goal by midfielder Juan Carlos Córdoba.
That teed up a semi with Juventude, who were 15th halfway through Brazil’s Série A. And that showed at Marcelo Gallardo Park as River won 4-0 through Sierra’s opener then a brilliant Zalazar hat-trick. And Vázquez and Martínez goals earned a 6-1 aggregate win to send River into the Final!
Copa Sudamericana Final
Fans from Buenos Aires and Belo Horizonte descended on La Paz, in Bolivia, as River and Cruzeiro, lingering in 17th in Série A, met in the Sudamericana Final. Lazaró had a clean bill of health so lined up:
Brandán; Navarro, Reyes, Aloisi, Vidal; Vázquez, Orozco, Velasquez; Zalazar; Sierra, Martínez
Subs: González, Barrios, Clavijo, Debruyne, Córdoba, Alexandre, Franco, Bisogno, Oliva, Silvestre
Cruzeiro made a bright start and should have been ahead after two minutes but their striker hit the post when clean through on goal. But he made no mistake just before half-time to give the Brazilians the lead. However, it was short-lived as Sierra rose highest to power home from a Vázquez corner.
River were having plenty of shots without creating any significant chances. That was until the hour mark when a brilliant team move ended up with Zalazar, who laid the ball off to Martínez to curl a delicious finish in off the underside of the bar. River should have taken control of the game at that point but quite the opposite as they gifted two more huge chances to Cruzeiro, but luckily Adrián Bardán bailed them out with two big saves. And that sealed an edgy 2-1 win.
River Plate won their 4th Copa Sudamericana!
But that wasn’t the main talking point, as this latest success meant Robinho Lazaró was officially the Greatest Football Manager Of All Time. He finally surpassed Julian Nagelsmann, moving onto 9,143 points in the Worldwide Hall of Fame. At this point, Lazaró considered packing it in, but decided to at least carry on until the end of the season.
Title defence begins
River got their title defence off to a good start as the deadly duo of Zalazar and Sierra scored in a 2-0 win at Rosario Central. A Vicente Reyes header edged them past Racing Club 1-0 in their first home game and a Zalazar hat-trick led a 4-1 thumping of Argentinos Jrs. in their second. Sierra responded with a hat-trick of his own in a 5-0 hammering of Talleres and River were off to a flyer.
Their winning start ended with a 0-0 at home to Boca, which took them to 33 league games unbeaten. But they picked up where they left off courtesy of Sierra rediscovering his best form with five goals in a 7-0 thrashing of Belgrano and Zalazar scoring a hat-trick in a 7-1 win at Chaco For Ever in the next game! And the unbeaten run lasted until 11 games into the season and 36 in total when a rotated side lost 1-0 at home to Banfield.
But they got back into another good run of form, including a 4-0 win at Patronato led by a Sierra hat-trick and Zalazar curling home a beauty from 30 yards, which took him to 200 goals for River Plate.
That moved River six points clear at the halfway point of the season and they were 10 points clear of Boca, who were third behind Independiente going into the mid-season break. At that point, Sierra replaced Zalazar as the South American Footballer of the Year. The Colombian has had an outstanding year, scoring 57 and 10 assists goals in 48 games, and Zalazar came second with a mere 39 goals and 17 assists! And Vázquez defended his Argentine Young Player of the Year award, with fellow midfielders Velasquez second and Carlos Orozco third.
Unsurprisingly, that sparked a flurry of derisory bids from Europe, which Lazaró blindly rejected. That was until Sporting met Velasquez’s £7.5 million minimum fee clause, but the midfielder rejected them. Lazaró celebrated by bringing in another exciting Colombian in 18-year-old striker Guillermo Zapata, who’d been wanted by Man UFC and Tottenham, for £650,000 from Millionarios.
More trophy opportunities
Lazaró had several opportunities to add to his trophy haul as he led River into 2075.
River exited at the quarter-final stage last season against eventual winners Atl. Tucumán. This year they got revenge against Tucumán with a 1-0 sixth-round win then a backup 11 breezed past Villa Mitre and Chaco For Ever, in which centre-back Nahuel Paolella became the youngest player in River history aged 15 years 350 days, before losing 3-2 at Patronato, in which another acadamy graduate José Luis Radaelli became the youngest River goalscorer aged 16 years 48 days. And Boca beat Patronato 3-1 in the final.
South American Recopa
Next was a defence of River’s Recopa win, in which they took on Libertadores winners Fluminense. River started well as a Vázquez double after early Sierra and Sebastian Aloisi strikes and a Zalazar assist hat-trick earned a 4-2 victory in the home leg. And a 1-0 defeat in Rio ensured River retained their title.
Six days later, it was the turn of the Superclásico as league champions River took on cup winners Boca. And the gulf Lazaró had created between the two sides was evident as River destroyed their rivals 5-0! Reyes headed home the opener after 21 minutes, Vázquez doubled the lead just after time and two excellent Zalazar strikes preceded Reyes also wrapping up a brace.
The Recopa and Argentine Supercup wins saw Lazaró move to an incredible 43 career cup trophy wins. But could he add a 41st league success as Liga Profesional de Fútbol concluded?
After the mid-season break, Lazaró decided to try out an attacking approach. That venture benefited him with devastating effect as River humiliated Chaco For Ever in a club record 11-0 win! That was inspired by Sierra bagging yet another five-goal haul, a Vázquez hat-trick, a Zalazar brace, four assists from right-back Darío Navarro, which dubiously earned him player of the match, and an assist for each of the front six… and Chaco didn’t even have a shot despite having 57% of possession!
But the approach backfired as they lost 2-1 at fourth-place Belgrano, which ended a 12-game unbeaten run and saw them seven points clear of Independiente after 24 games. The “defensive” claims thrown at Lazaró throughout his career returned as he quickly stepped back from his uncharacteristically gung-ho approach, beginning with a 1-0 win at Racing Club.
The goals flowed again as Zapata scored two and made one on his full debut in a 5-0 thumping of Rosario Central then Zalazar bagged in a brace in a 6-1 hammering at Lazaró’s former side Newell’s. But River remained seven points clear with 10 games to go because Independiente also kept on winning! That teed up a huge game as River made the trip to Independiente. But River stepped things up to another level as Zalazar and Martínez bagged braces along with a late Sierra goal in a thrilling 5-2 win that brought another title closer to reality.
That definitely looked the case as River eased past Estudiantes (RC) 3-0 in their next game while Independiente lost 1-0 at Patronato, moving River 13 points clear with eight to play. That extended to 15 as a Sierra brace inspired a 3-0 win at Vélez while Independiente drew at Crucero del Norte. River’s celebrations were delayed by a shock 4-0 defeat at Banfield, but they got back on track to hammer Crucero del Norte 6-2 inspired by a Sierra hat-trick and late brace from substitute Zapata.
And River wrapped up three titles on the bounce with an emphatic 5-0 thrashing of Talleres, fittingly inspired by a Sierra hat-trick and a Zalazar brace. These two players are just absolutely phenomenal!
River Plate won their third successive Argentinian title!
A poignant day saw Lazaró head into his 2,566th and final match as a Football Manager as his River side travelled to Rivadavia. His final team talk worked wonders as River should have scored twice in the first five minutes then did so after 10 minutes, through a harshly awarded own goal by the keeper. But that man Zalazar stepped up with a quick brace, both times sprinting towards his beloved manager to jump on him along with the rest of the players. And Navarro made it four before the break with his first senior goal on his 119th league appearance! And a 4-1 away win was a fitting way to conclude a brilliant career.
That saw River finish on 97 points, 14 clear of Boca and 17 ahead of Independiente. They scored an outrageous 123 goals and only conceded 21, finishing with a ridiculous 102 goal difference!
Sierra absolutely obliterated the league, scoring a sensational 52 (FIFTY TWO!) goals in 36 games. He also got 18 player of the match awards with an 8.58 average rating, both of which were unsurprisingly new league records. This guy is something else! Zalazar was the third-highest scorer in the league with 31 in 35 and 18 assists. Martínez was the top assister with 19 and Brandán set a new league record 23 clean sheets. While credit has to go Boca’s Adrián Bianchi, who scored 37 and wasn’t even close to top goalscorer!
There’s no place to start other than with Andrés Sierra. The striker was amazing last season but took it to whole new levels, smashing his own club record by plundering 62 goals in just 50 games, breaking the long-standing club record for most goals in a league campaign (52) and breaking the record for most player of the match awards (23). He also got 13 assists and an 8.37 average rating and obviously won fans’ player and young player of the season. Lazaró believed this was the latest in a long line of strikers he’d worked with who was bound to go right to the top of the footballing world.
If it wasn’t for Sierra, Zalazar’s 38 goals, 23 assists and 8.00 average rating in 49 games would have sounded pretty astonishing. While Vázquez scored 17 and assisted 15 in 52 games and Martínez scored 16 and assisted 22 in 52 games. And again, only four players averaged under a 7.00.
A Hero’s Departure
Winning title number 41 along with 43 cup successes was a fitting end to what had been a thrilling journey. Robinho Lazaró’s time in management on his Aventuras Américas journey was well and truly done. Now aged 91, Lazaró stood down as River manager when his contract expired on 1 July 2075. He was given a hero’s departure by the River fans and a hero’s welcome home, as he was mobbed by thousands of loving Colombians upon his arrival back home in Medellín. 54 years on from departing Medellín, the hometown hero was back home among his people and settled into peaceful retirement.
One final twist in the adventure?
Despite walking away from the game, Lazaró was glued to his television watching every one of his 21 former clubs whenever they were broadcast. And they say a manager never loses the urge, so he was also curious to find out if any teams would be interested in hiring a 100-year-old Football Manager. So, as one final sting in the tail on this epic adventure, he decided to go on holiday for nine years, see how the footballing world progresses, return the day before his 100th birthday and then try to get a job.
But before we give that experiment a go, tomorrow we will reflect on the epic career of the world’s greatest Football Manager.