Wonderkid Factory | Part 5 | Envigado’s Copa Libertadores Debut

The depth of talent at Envigado FC could not be argued against. Robinho Lazaró’s young charges qualified for Copa Libertadores for the first time in club history by winning the Liga BetPlay Finalización league stage in 2023 – but, crucially, not the playoff stage that sees the trophies handed out.

The summer of 2024 saw plenty of change, starting with the club’s oldest player Jesús Hernández departing as his contract demands were astronomical and swiftly retiring aged just 31. Six more players left along with a host of backroom staff, while River Plate came in with a £2m offer for right-back Santiago Jiménez, who only had 18 months on his contract. That, combined with bagging £2.6m for competing in Copa Libertadores, boosted the bank balance to a healthy £7m and slashed a further £10k off the weekly wage spend of £40k – which was half the £78k wage budget.

Having only signed one player in two seasons, a raft of youngsters arrived having been released by Argentinian clubs. That includes 18-year-old midfielders Lorenzo Brun and Ignacio Palavecino and midfielder/winger Agustín Obregón.

Centre-back Santiago Norena is now the oldest player at the club at the ripe old age of 25, followed by three 23-year-olds in Juan Manuel Zapata, Felipe Parra and Diego Rodríguez. 20 of the 25-man squad are 21 or under, 11 are teenagers and there are four 16-year-olds in the first-team! For context, 3 stars is a good Liga BetPlay player and most of the first 11 have at least 3-star ability barring the full-backs. All of the first-team squad have at least 4-star potential, 13 have 5-stars and 11 have 4.5-stars.

That promise was added to by another superb youth intake containing six 5-star potential “elite talents.” The star prospect is supposedly midfielder Jafe Ostos but striker Jhoao Trivino bagged a hat-trick in a 5-2 win over the under-20s. Other names to keep an eye on are strikers José Ruiz and Carlos Mosquera, attacking midfielder Randi Redín and goalkeeper Jorge Bocanegra.

Considering four 5-star strikers have come through the academy in the last two seasons, there could be a change of tactic required in the future. But for now, the tactic remains the same with Rodríguez flanked by 6ft 5in winger Diego Betancourth and newly promoted Luis Ángel Díaz. There’s also new full-backs in 18-year-old Emanuel Londono backed up by Heiler Mosquera on the left and 16-year-old Malcom Mina Camacho supported by Julián Palacio on the right. But the key to the team is probably the rock Zapata in the Anchor role.

Third Liga BetPlay Apertura begins

Envigado’s chances have improved with the bookies now backing them to finish 15th and 500/1 to top the league. Millonarios are title favourites at 15/8 followed by Tolima (5/1), Atlético (11/2), Junior fC (6/1) and Independiente Medellín (11/1).

The new season began with a thriller at La Equidad, who twice led in the first half only for Josep Mejía to equalise both times. The impressive midfielder laid on Rodríguez to put Envigado ahead but the hosts quickly equalised and it finished 3-3. But they picked up a first win in their first home game as Mejía crossed for the giant Betancourth to head the opener then Díaz scored his first senior goal to seal a dominant 2-0 win over Santa Fe.

Rodríguez picked up an injury but no worries as 16-year-old sensation Marcelo Guzmán replaced him and scored in a 2-0 win at Pereira. The strong start continued with consecutive 3-0 home wins against newly promoted Real Cartagena with goals from both centre-backs Norena and Jhon Banguera then Pasto inspired by Mejía’s hat-trick. The midfielder continued his stellar form by scoring his seventh goal in seven games in a 2-1 win at Bogotá before a 2-2 with Cúcuta took Envigado to a new club record 12 games unbeaten in all competitions.

But they weren’t happy with that, extending the run with a 3-0 win at Petrolera then Mejía and midfielder Daniel Zapata’s first senior goal sealed a 2-0 victory over rivals Águilas Doradas. They claimed a credible 2-2 at Atlético Nacional then Mejía scored the only goal at home to Jaguares de Córdoba and D Zapata and exciting winger Felipe Toro nicked a 2-0 win at Patriotas. After 13 games, Envigado were still unbeaten but behind Millonarios, who were in inspired form. Two big home games in three days tested their credentials as they earned a 2-2 with 3rd-place Tolima then fell to a first defeat 2-1 against Millonarios, who basically wrapped up first place in the league.

Rodríguez ended the campaign in inspired form, scoring consecutive braces in a draw at Junior and a 2-1 home win over Cali then scoring the winner at Once Caldas. The league stage concluded with a disappointing 2-1 loss at home to 19th-place Patriotas, in which they rebroke their low attendance record as just 2,500 people showed up, but recovered with a 2-1 win at Independiente with goals from both wingers Betancourth and Toro.

That sealed an impressive third-place finish behind the dominant Millonarios and Tolima. Mejía was the best player in the league with an outstanding 7.48 average rating from 18 games, in which he scored 12 and got seven assists.

Apertura post-season

The post-season group saw Envigado take on Millonarios, Independiente and Pasto, which looked tricky. It began with a tough test at home to league winners Millonarios but Lazaró’s chicos did well to hold on for a 0-0 despite 38% possession. Guzmán scored the winner in a 3-2 win at Pasto as Lazaró rested Rodríguez, but the main man returned to bag a hat-trick at Independiente and send Envigado top of the group at the halfway mark.

Rodríguez also came up with a huge goal to nick a 1-0 win at Millonarios. And that strike saw the 23-year-old become Envigado’s record league goalscorer with 67 in his three seasons at the club.

But he wasn’t done there as he again bagged a hat-trick at home to Pasto to clinch the group with a game to spare! So Lazaró fully rotated for the final game and they lost 3-0 to Independiente. But topping this group was a massive achievement – while Millonarios’ board was so incensed by finishing third that they sacked their manager after four years in charge!

That took Envigado into the Apertura Final against Tolima, who they’d still only beaten once in 13 meetings under Lazaró. That streak continued as they drew the home leg 1-1 thanks to Rodríguez’s late equaliser then lost 2-0 away, so the title continued to elude Lazaró. But they did earn £500k for reaching the Final. Meanwhile, Rodríguez’s post-season goals saw become the leading league goalscorer with 18 in 26 and move top of the average rating (7.41) and player of the match award (7) charts.

First-ever Copa Libertadores campaign

Envigado went into the Copa Libertadores group stage draw in Pot 1, which saw a relatively favorable group alongside Peruvian team Municipal, Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann and a qualifier that turned out to be Ecuadorian side Barcelona SC.

Their first-ever Copa Libertadores game was at home to Municipal and they started well as a brace from midfielder Carlos Paternina and a late Guzmán goal sealed a 3-1 victory. They then had wingers Betancourth and Díaz to thank for goals that sealed a 2-1 win in Bolivia before midfielder William Hurtado and Betancourth claimed a point in Ecuador. That had Envigado topping their group at the midway point with two home games to come. And a dominant performance in the first of those sent them through, beating Barcelona 4-1 – although they had to wait as three goals came after the 88th minute!

Envigado were one point away from qualification heading into the final two games, and they completed it at the first time of asking as Hurtado and Rodríguez downed Jorge Wilstermann 2-1. Lazaró rotated the side fully to give the first 11 a much-needed rest and it backfired with a 4-0 defeat at Municipal! But it didn’t matter as they’d already wrapped up the group.

The Future Is Bright At Envigado

Midway through his third season at Envigado, there was plenty of exciting talent for Lazaró to work with. His first team was packed with prospects like the exciting Mina Camacho, Betancourth, Díaz, Mejía and Toro all getting regular football with even more to come. But the best prospect of the lot had to be Guzmán, who became Envigado’s first player to be named on the NxGn list, making it to number 42 in NxGn 2024.

Could Envigado take their good performances in Apertura into Finalización 2024? Join us on Friday to find out!

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