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2014 Copa Libertadores Review: San Lorenzo’s cup demons laid to rest

San Lorenzo finally ended their biblical drought in the Libertadores with a 2-1 aggregate victory over Nacional de Asuncion to claim South America’s premier club title for the first time in their 106-year history. Tom Robinson looks back at South America’s premier competition.

Copa Lib San Lorenzo

The tie was poised on a knife-edge after Julio Santa Cruz’s last gasp equaliser had cancelled out birthday boy Mauro Matos’ strike in the first leg in Paraguay.  An expectant but nervous crowd in the packed out Nuevo Gasometro awaited the decisive return fixture with baited breath, eagerly anticipating the chance to finally lay their hands on this the most elusive of prizes.

Nacional started the stronger, seemingly a different beast from their lacklustre home incarnation, and hearts were in mouths when Derlis Orue rattled the post early on.  But, 34 minutes into the first half, Los Cuervos’ prayers seemed to be answered as a penalty was awarded for a handball by Nacional full back Ramon Coronel.

In barrel-chested midfielder Nestor Ortigoza, who as a youth used to compete in penalty competitions for money, San Lorenzo have arguably one of the most consistently deadly spot kick takers in world football, having previously missed only once in twenty one attempts.  Ortigoza, a Paraguayan playing in Argentina, faced off against Ignacio Don, an Argentinian playing in Paraguay, to decide the fate of these two maiden finalists.

The result was never in doubt.

In his trademark fashion, Ortigoza began his long, straight, stuttering run up, waited for Don to blink first and dive right, before consummately tucking the ball into the opposite corner.  San Lorenzo held on to their slender advantage and at long last their wait was over.

The victory marks the culmination of quite an incredible turnaround in the club’s fortunes in the last 2 years.  El Ciclon have gone from the verge of relegation to winning the 2013 Inicial under Juan Antonio Pizzi, securing a historic return to Boedo and now have added the one trophy missing from their collection.

Their revival has coincided with ascension of Pope Francis – an avid San Lorenzo fan and socio – to the papacy, causing many to cite divine intervention as a factor for their resurgence.  However, as fitting as that would be given the saintly origins of the club, it has been the installation of new club president Matias Lammens and vice-president Marcelo Tinelli that has been the catalyst for their success.  A few eyebrows were raised with their election in September 2012 but 34-year old Lammens and television mogul Tinelli – think the Simon Cowell of Argentina – have proved any doubters wrong in spectacular fashion.

Credit too must go to the coach and players.  Manager Edgardo Bauza was brought in largely due to his 2008 triumph with LDU Quito and thanks to his nous and experience he repeated the feat to become only the fourth manager to win the Libertadores with two separate clubs.  Usually opting for a 4-2-3-1, Bauza got his side organised and well-drilled, making them difficult to break down, as demonstrated by the fact they only conceded nine times in 14 games.  Only one of those came at home as Patón, knowing the importance of home advantage, turned the Nuevo Gasometro into a fortress where San Lorenzo remained unbeaten with six wins and a draw.

Goalkeeper Sebastian Torrico and centre back Santiago Gentiletti were ever presents in that resolute defence, ably supported by full backs Emanuel Mas and Julio Buffarini.  Given licence to get forward, the energetic Mas dovetailed well on the left with the intelligent Ignacio Piatti while Buffarini also combined effectively with pace merchant Hector Villalba on the opposing flank.  Young starlet Angel Correa sparkled, earning a summer move to Atletico Madrid, only to be ruled out of the semis and final when his medical revealed a heart condition that needed microsurgery, while no-nonesense striker Mauro Matos provided a focal point up front, weighing in with three goals and three assists.

Key to their victory was the midfield partnership of Ortigoza and Juan Mercier who won the battle in the centre of the park time and time again.  A mixture of physical presence, poise, positional expertise and intelligent use of the ball, the experienced pair perfectly complemented each other with a mutual understanding forged from their title winning exploits together at Argentinos Juniors in 2010, dictating play and dominating the game.

And perhaps no-one deserved this more than iconic captain Leandro Romagnoli.  The veteran playmaker and a boyhood fan was the embodiment of the team, giving the side balance and expertly knitting play together in the final third, particularly with centre forward Matos.  This crowning achievement is a testament to the years of service he has given the club and cements his place as one of San Lorenzo’s all time legends.  It seemed a fitting farewell as he was due to join Bahia afterwards but, such is the emotional bond, he has since rescinded his contract with the Brazilians and will remain in Buenos Aires.

Much like the club’s protracted return to their original neighbourhood of Boedo, San Lorenzo’s journey to the final was far from straightforward.   The group stage began inauspiciously with an opening day 2-0 loss to Botafogo and didn’t improve much as they picked up only one win from the next four games, leaving them staring down the barrel of an early exit.  Going into the final crunch match against Botafogo, themselves not certain of qualification, only a win for el Ciclon would suffice. To complicate matters, they also had to win by two clear goals to ensure they finish ahead of Ecuadorian upstarts Independiente del Valle who were level on points but ahead on goal difference.

Goals from Villalba and Piatti either side of halftime gave San Lorenzo a 2-0 lead but it appeared to be in vain as Daniel Angulo completed his hat-trick to put Independiente 3-1 up away against top of the group Union Espanola.  However, in a ludicrous 15 minutes, things swung back in San Lorenzo’s favour as Union Espanola had turned it around and raced into a 4-3 lead.  As it stood the Argentinians were through.

But that wasn’t the end of the drama.  Back in Santiago, Angulo netted his fourth and the exciting Junior Sornoza made it 5-4 to Independiente del Valle soon after.  San Lorenzo now needed another goal as Independiente were ahead on goals scored and set to qualify.  And then, in the dying embers of the game, Piatti scampered onto Matos’ flick on and fired past Jefferson to make it 3-0 and put San Lorenzo through to the knock out stages.  Better late than never in an incredible rollercoaster finish to the group stages.

With the sense of destiny well and truly instilled, San Lorenzo eliminated the fancied Gremio on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate draw, with Torrico the hero this time after two brilliant saves in the shootout.  Bauza’s men then claimed another Brazilian scalp with a 2-1 victory over Serie A champions Cruzeiro to further underline their title credentials.  In the semis, they produced their most emphatic performance of the competition to crush Bolivar 5-0 at home in the first leg and, despite a 1-0 defeat in the altitude of La Paz a week later, ensured they would meet Nacional de Asuncion in the final.

For Nacional this was also a first Libertadores final over a century in the making.  The historic side from Asuncion were one of many surprise packages in a tournament full of underdogs but had battled hard for a deserved shot at glory.  Under the stewardship of impressive young manager Gustavo Morínigo, el Tricolor had emerged from a group containing two of last year’s semi-finalists – Atletico Mineiro and Santa Fe – and had also put out Argentinian sides Velez and Arsenal en route to the final.  Unfortunately it wasn’t to be third time lucky against San Lorenzo and, like compatriots Olimpia last year, they too fell at the final hurdle. Midfielders Derlis Orue and Silvio Torales caught the eye while Ignacio Don put in string of fine performances and was probably the best goalkeeper in the tournament.

Continuing the theme of dark horses, beaten semi-finalists Bolivar and Defensor Sporting can look back on successful campaigns.  Aside from their thrashing to San Lorenzo, Bolivar bucked the trend of Bolivians sides relying on altitude-assisted home fixtures with a series of impressive away results.  With their young goalkeeper Romel Quinonez in fine fettle, Juanmi Callejon leading Azkargorta’s Spanish contingent and the always dangerous Juan Carlos Arce and Willian Ferreira up front, los Celestes equalled their best ever performance by reaching the semis for the first time since 1986.

Uruguayan side Defensor Sporting brought youthful endeavour, vim and vigour to proceedings, including some particularly eye catching results against heavyweights Cruzeiro and Atletico Nacional. Young attacking duo Giorgian de Arrascaeta and Felipe Gedoz – the former a dreamy playmaker, the latter a skilful, speedy Brazilian winger – were two of the revelations of the tournament, whose precociousness was complimented by the class and experience of veteran forward Nicolas Oliveira, joint top scorer with five strikes.

Elsewhere, this edition of the Libertadores was notable for the weak Brazilian showing and was the first time since 1991 that no Brazilian side had contested a semi-final.  By contrast, the strong Argentinian showing was highlighted by first quarter final appearances for both Lanus and Arsenal.

San Lorenzo now have the Club World Cup to look forward to this December.  The star-studded Real Madrid ensemble of Ronaldo, Bale, James et al represents a near insurmountable challenge and any chance of an improbable victory would be miraculous even in Pope Francis’ book.

Regardless of what transpires in Morocco, San Lorenzo’s cup demons have now been firmly laid to rest. Club Atletico Sin Libertadores de America no more.

Written by Tom Robinson

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