San Lorenzo’s title celebrations were brief in December. Delight at having lifted the 2013 Inicial championship was tempered by the news that influential coach Juan Antonio Pizzi would be leaving for Valencia.
Even so, the Ciclon are the best placed out of any Argentine participant to break the Brazilian stranglehold on the Libertadores and triumph in 2014.
An Argentine success in the tournament is well overdue. Since the functional-rather-than-explosive Estudiantes team of 2009—masterminded by Juan Sebastian Veron on the pitch, and current Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella off it—downed Cruzeiro in the final, no team from the nation has repeated that success. Even worse, only Boca Juniors in that period have reached the final, going down to Corinthians in 2012.
That five-year period, during which the Copa has gone to four different Brazilian teams (Internacional, Santos, Corinthians and Atletico Mineiro), represents the worst run in South America’s premier club tournament since 1994. In that year, Velez Sarsfield cut short an eight-year drought by downing the mighty Sao Paulo of Zetti, Muller, Junior Baiano, Cafu and a young Juninho of later Middlesbrough fame.
Can San Lorenzo break the cycle in 2014, also putting to an end their unwanted tag of being the only member of Argentina’s “Big five” without a Libertadores title?
The champions made a less than auspicious start to the Final, losing 2-0 against relegation candidates Olimpo in Bahia Blanca. But the team supported by Pope Francis does not just have heavenly intervention on their side.
A blend of experienced heads such as Ignacio Piatti, Leandro Romagnoli and Nestor Ortigoza and electric young talent gives San Lorenzo one of the most electric attacks in South America. Prospects such as Angel Correa, Hector Villalba, Alan Ruiz and Fernando Elizari may not yet be widely recognized outside of South America, but in 2014 they will have the perfect stage to build their profiles.
Add to that the acquisition of centre-forward Mauro Matos, and the expected return from injury of the excellent Martin Cauteruccio and Gonzalo Veron, and you have a dynamic attacking force equally adept at playing on the break—as preferred by Pizzi—or controlling the flow of a game.
The defence does not transmit quite the same confidence; in their eagerness to push forward, the full-backs Julio Buffarini and Emmanuel Mas can leave their colleagues exposed. It remains to be seen how the back line will cope against the best in South America, although the purchase of Colombia international Carlos Valdes in the middle will help relieve pressure.
The loss of Pizzi could also be a negative for the Bajo Flores club. Although never hugely popular with sections of the fanbase, the former Barcelona striker imposed an order and discipline to the club which turned around their fortunes in rapid time. From playing off to avoid relegation in 2012 to lifting the title just 18 months later, a great deal of the credit for that recovery must go to Pizzi.
Still, the San Lorenzo board could not have picked a coach with better cup pedigree to replace him. Edgardo Bauza was coaxed back from Ecuador to take up the reins, and his record is impressive.
Bauza dragged the previously unheralded Liga de Quito to the 2008 Copa Libertadores title, the first time an Ecuadorian team had lifted international silverware. He almost followed up that triumph with victory in the 2011 Copa Sudamericana, only to lose out in the final against the juggernaut Universidad de Chile directed by Jorge Sampaoli.
The Rosario native has the know-how and experience to put together a successful cup campaign. While he will not have the advantage of playing at altitude he enjoyed in Quito, his well-organised sides are always difficult to break down.
The Cuervo face a baptism of fire with a trip this week to Rio de Janeiro’s Botafogo. But aside from the Brazilians, a Group 2 completed by Chile’s Union Espanola and Independiente del Valle from Ecuador looks very accessible indeed. A strong result in Rio would put San Lorenzo on the right track for glory, and if they can break the five-year drought it would not only be Ciclon fans celebrating in Argentina.