The suspicion that San Lorenzo's setup in their Club World Cup semifinal vs. New Zealand side Auckland City was practice for the final itself turned out, largely, to be correct.
Of course, the now traditional final mismatch meant that sitting back and playing for the counterattack was a more sensible way of going about the showpiece than it had been in the semi. While they never looked likely to cause an upset against Real Madrid, the champions of South America will at least return to Buenos Aires with their dignity intact after the 2-0 loss to Los Blancos.
Since Internacional's 2006 win over Barcelona, only Corinthians in 2012 have brought the trophy back to South America. When that team, nicknamed "Timao," beat Chelsea 1-0, they scored the only goal from a non-European team in the final since Alejandro Sabella's Estudiantes side lost 2-1 in extra time to Barcelona in 2009. The huge economic mismatch between European football and the rest of the world means most of the teams in this competition aren't hamstrung solely by on-pitch developments.
All the same, in a one-off match there's always a chance, and it generally comes from trying to keep things tight. San Lorenzo managed that pretty well for nearly all of the first half -- aside from a near-disastrous giveaway in the second minute from Juan Mercier, at least -- but manager Edgardo Bauza will surely have been annoyed at conceding from a set piece, even considering what a threat Sergio Ramos is from such situations.
The moment that really spoiled the game came early in the second half when, with San Lorenzo starting to show just a little more confidence, Sebastián Torrico allowed Gareth Bale's daisy-cutter to squirm under him and into the net. (To be clear: When I say "spoiled the game," I mean as a spectacle.)
Madrid were worth the lead, of course, but it's hard not to wonder how much more entertaining the second half might have been if the deficit San Lorenzo were chasing had stayed at a single goal. Given how easily Bale's goal might have been avoided, it didn't seem an outlandish thing to imagine.
If there was dignity in the score line for San Lorenzo, though, then it's also worth bearing in mind that just by being at this competition they'd won a huge victory already. The same can be said of all the other participants, of course, but for San Lorenzo it was especially historic.
Let's not forget that six months ago, they were still the only one of Argentina's "Big Five" to have never won the Copa Libertadores. Even non-Big Five clubs like Vélez Sarsfield (with whom they have something of a rivalry) and self-described 'small club' Argentinos Juniors were able to mock them for having won what San Lorenzo hadn't.
That wasn't the only battle the club have had to face in recent years. When Matías Lammens and media mogul Marcelo Tinelli took over as president and vice-president respectively in Sept. 2012, they won the club's elections comfortably. This was due in no small part to huge dissatisfaction with the incumbent president Carlos Abdo, who had been forced to stand down having overseen a few years of decline which culminated in the club surviving relegation thanks to a playoff win over second division side Instituto de Córdoba.
Under Lammens and Tinelli's directorship, relegation threats are a distant memory; a year ago, the club won their 15th Primera División title (their first in six years), and it was followed by that long-awaited maiden Copa Libertadores triumph. It's hard to deny he and Lammens appear to be very effective football club directors.
In that context, then, it's easy to see why 2014 will be remembered as a good one for San Lorenzo in spite of a disappointing performance in the recent domestic championship and defeat in Saturday's Club World Cup final, even more so considering fans were always aware they would be a distinctly outside bet for the final.
Few players sum up the club's revival quite as well as Julio Buffarini. Three years ago, he was playing as a midfielder for second division Buenos Aires club Ferro Carril Oeste but now he's adapted to a full-back role at San Lorenzo. During the second half of the Club World Cup final, he bypassed two Real Madrid players with a back-heeled pass (which, admittedly, ended up going to a third opposition player, but let's brush over that part). Mauro Matos, scorer of the extra-time winner against Auckland City in the semifinal, has spent a decent part of his career in the lower divisions, as well.
Bauza, who became the first South American manager to be in charge of a second CWC final (he was Liga de Quito boss when they lost 1-0 to Manchester United in 2008), was trying to look at the final result positively as well.
"There's no dignity in defeat," he insisted after the match. "[But] it's an honour for us to end the year in the Club World Cup final, we're proud in spite of the result."
The next step for San Lorenzo? The South American club will use their summer break (it's currently that season in Argentina) to find out how much of their current squad they can keep together for another crack at the Libertadores next year.