San Lorenzo motivated to get dream shot versus Real Madrid
When San Lorenzo finally ended their long wait to lift the Copa Libertadores for the first time in August, it was the end of one task and the beginning of another. For European clubs, the Champions League is an end in itself, but in South America the Libertadores -- while prestigious -- is often seen as the ticket to the Club World Cup, and the chance to go toe-to-toe with Europe's best.
Of course, San Lorenzo have to get past Auckland City before that can happen, but that hasn't stopped all the talk in the last few months about how Edgardo Bauza's men are going to deal with the threat offered by the European champions.
The first concern for the Libertadores winners is always hanging on to as much of their squad as possible for the next challenge. The continent's economic realities, and the strength in that respect of the European sides whose scouts so often frequent matches in South America, mean that keeping the squad completely intact is a pipe dream. With the break for the World Cup causing a long gap between the quarterfinals and the semifinals, young forward Ángel Correa had been snapped up by Atlético Madrid before the side even lifted the trophy. Ignacio Piatti, another key player, had to leave for the Montreal Impact between the two legs of the final, due to the registration deadline imposed by MLS.
Other than those two, though, the damage to the squad has been relatively light. The support of a new board, backed by wealthy TV mogul Marcelo Tinelli as the club's vice-president, has made it a little easier than it might have been for other clubs for San Lorenzo to keep the group together.
Perhaps in recognition of the attacking thread their opponents will pose in the final, the biggest signing since the Copa win has been a defender: Colombia World Cup captain Mario Yepes, who was already familiar with Buenos Aires having had a spell at River Plate earlier in his career. Yepes joined on a free transfer to strengthen the back line, though he's a doubt for Wednesday's semifinal.
The emotional expenditure of claiming that first Libertadores -- prior to this year San Lorenzo were, infamously, the only one of Argentina's 'Big Five' not to have won the trophy; a fact fans of River, Boca Juniors, Independiente and Racing never tired of reminding them about -- seemed to be the main cause for San Lorenzo's subsequent huge dip in form.
Having had their first match of the domestic season postponed to allow them to concentrate properly on the Libertadores (it would otherwise have fallen between the two legs of the final), San Lorenzo proceeded to manage just one win from their first five league matches, losing both of their first two home games. After a minor revival when they won two in a row, they managed just one win in their next six, meaning that after 13 matches they'd only managed four wins, and had lost seven. It was quite a fall from grace for the side that just three months earlier had been crowned champions of South America.
The defence wasn't great, but they were never thrashed outright, though they certainly could have lost more heavily than 3-1 at home to a River Plate side who started the season in sensational form. But with every interview, it was clear San Lorenzo had their minds set on Morocco. Manager Bauza was increasingly frustrated, and wasn't being helped by injuries.
Then came the result which finally seemed to change things. In the 14th round of matches of the season that's just finished, Boca Juniors visited the Nuevo Gasómetro. San Lorenzo are one of the few teams in Argentina have beaten Boca more than they've lost to them. Boca were doing all right at the time, but San Lorenzo got their heads together, played well, and got a deserved 2-0 win. That sparked the form Bauza had been looking for; of their last six matches they lost two (both away), but won the other four.
For Bauza, the Club World Cup is familiar territory. Having won the Copa Libertadores while in charge of Ecuador's Liga de Quito in 2008, he took the side past Pachuca of Mexico (2-0) and into the final of this competition in that year, where they put up stiff resistance and lost 1-0 to Manchester United. A similar pattern seems likely here; he'll expect San Lorenzo to be efficient and control the match against Auckland City, but will recognise that they'll be underdogs against Madrid, and adjust accordingly.
One thing that will remain the same is the key midfield duo of Juan Mercier and Argentina-born Paraguay international Néstor Ortigoza. Together, they won the Argentine Primera in 2010 with Argentinos Juniors, and repeated the feat with San Lorenzo a year ago before being the central axis of the Libertadores-winning side. Mercier's defensive work and Ortigoza's passing range are superb by local standards; both will have to be on top of their games to stand a chance in Morocco, though.
One thing San Lorenzo will have the advantage in, though, is travelling fans. The Argentine support was one of the off-pitch highlights of the World Cup, and this time will be no different; some reports say over 10,000 San Lorenzo fans are expected to be at the semifinal with Auckland on Wednesday.
The tournament San Lorenzo have obsessed over -- to the point that Bauza was moved to say a few weeks ago that, 'any player who talks about Morocco is out of the squad,' while the league season was still ongoing -- is finally here. The South American champions might not have the economic, physical or technical advantages, but their support and motivation certainly won't be lacking.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been one of ESPNFC's South America correspondents since 2008. Twitter: @HEGS_com