The San Lorenzo players wore looks of surprise and frustration on their faces as they gathered for a team huddle at the end of normal time in their FIFA Club World Cup semi-final with Auckland City on Wednesday. The Argentinians had clearly not been expecting the unfancied Kiwis to take them to extra-time, and knew that as the reigning Copa Libertadores champions they could not afford to lose to a semi-professional side.

Yet, out of that sweaty team talk emerged one man with a look of calm determination: Juan Mercier, the man they call Pichi, the man who sets the tempo of a side that eventually saw off the Navy Blues and is now facing up to the biggest challenge in San Lorenzo’s history: Saturday’s Club World Cup final against Real Madrid.

“We know that Real Madrid have got players who are out of this world, who are from a different planet, but we’ve got things going for us too and we don’t bow down to anyone,” the central midfielder told FIFA.com on the eve of the big game in Marrakech. “That’s what made us the champions of the Americas and that’s why we’re playing in this tournament. We know what we’re here for.”

Now almost 35, Mercier is El Ciclón’s undisputed driving force, a status underlined by the fact that he is the one who pulls on the captain’s armband whenever club legend Leandro Romagnoli is not on the pitch.

Making things tick
Just the kind of team-mate you need in a huddle, Mercier is even more important to the side when the ball starts rolling. Along with midfield sidekick Nestor Ortigoza, he is San Lorenzo’s fulcrum, the player around whom everything revolves.

“The two of us have known each other for a long time and we know exactly what the other one is going to do. We complement each other perfectly,” he said of his partnership with Ortigoza, who was also a colleague of Mercier’s at Argentinos Juniors, where they combined to great effect in the club’s 2010 Torneo Clausura triumph.

We know that Real Madrid have got players who are out of this world, who are from a different planet, but we’ve got things going for us too and we don’t bow down to anyone.

Juan Mercier

At San Lorenzo, Mercier is the deeper of the two in the 4-1-4-1 system employed by coach Edgardo Bauza. Adept at snaffling possession from opponents, he organises the play, slowing it down or speeding it up according to requirements. A model midfielder, Mercier patrols his beat with textbook efficiency.

He arrived at the club in 2012, having come recommended by Diego Maradona, following a spell in the Middle East that did not go exactly according to plan, largely on account of his inability to settle in, though it was not for want of trying on his part. Mercier is one of the game’s great triers, having emerged – like a good number of his Ciclón team-mates – from the backwaters of Argentinian football and broken into the top flight at a relatively advanced age, an increasingly common phenomenon in the country’s first division.

Mindful of the circuitous career path he has taken, Mercier regards the chance to take on what he describes as “the best team in the world” as a unique opportunity. “At my age this is like touching heaven,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of second division football and reached the top flight at a late age, so I never thought I’d ever be in a situation like this, about to take on Real Madrid. I couldn’t be more grateful to the game of football.”

A long and winding road
The veteran has no doubt been replaying his career in his mind these last few days: the knee ligament injury he suffered when he was 15, which caused him to lose a yard of pace; his retirement from the game at 17; and the time he spent two years later working as a builder, a job he took up just to get out of the house.

He made his return to football with Puerto Nuevo in the national fifth tier, hitching a 45-kilometre ride to the team’s training ground every day. Things were no more glamorous when he moved to Platense, where hotel rooms were shared with as many as six other players, details that he shared with the Argentinian magazine El Gráfico in an interview a few months ago.

As he acknowledged on that occasion, he is far from the only San Lorenzo player who has come a long way: “We’ve got a lot of seasoned players who’ve fought all sorts of different battles in both the first and second division, which is really useful for us, on and off the pitch. We’re a team that really sticks together. We’re united, which is what makes us strong.”

Expressing a defiant tone perfectly suited to this Saturday’s game, he then said: “When we’re up against a team that is much better than us, we dig as deep as we can and give everything we’ve got.”

San Lorenzo have proved that on several occasions, most notably in their successful Copa Libertadores campaign, in which they closed out testing ties against Gremio and Cruzeiro on Brazilian soil. While the Argentinians will have to raise their game even higher to beat Madrid, the unflappable Mercier is confident they can do just that: “When the whistle goes, we’ll show why we’re there."