Tomorrow morning in the wee small hours thousands of devoted Western Sydney Wanderers will aggregate together in Parramatta, or perhaps at Club Marconi in Bossley Park, or at Blacktown Workers, or even just stumble out of bed and put the TV onto FoxSports, and every one will have that one hope; bring home the Champions’ League trophy. No doubt many of them, plus non-Wanderer viewers, will have ideas as to how Popovic’s squad can achieve what so many thought was impossible and create a new glorious page in football’s history down under. So, to fulfill that obligation of being a rabid armchair expert, here are my thoughts on how to beat Al Hilal.
If there is one match winning quality that had been demonstrated time and time again by the Wanderers, not just in the 2014 AFC Champions’ League, it has been a well adjusted sense of self-belief. I’m not talking the mind games and braggart behaviour coming through from the likes of Al Hilal’s coach Laurentiu Reghecampf who, when at a pre-match press conference said “No, I promise you we won’t lose tomorrow. I’m going to see to that and I hope that [Western] Sydney will stay a small team.” (source). It’s the kind of confidence and self-belief that club leaders such as captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley (“It’s a massive, massive game, we’re under no illusions about that but we’re really excited to be 90 minutes away from being champions.”) and coach Tony Popovic have kept talking about:
“They’re here because they deserve to be here,” he said of his men.”They’re motivated enough, they’re not here for a holiday, they’re here to win the final.” (source)
Tony Popovic: mastermind of the ascent of the Western Sydney Wanderers
Perhaps the mentality that is most indicative of where the Wanderers are and hopefully need to be at when it comes to beating Al Hilal is that spoken of by heroic goalkeeper Ante Covic:
“There’s going to be 65-odd thousand Hilal supporters and they’re going to make it as intimidating as possible and try and wear us down in that aspect,” said Covic, who was impressive in the 1-0 first leg win in Sydney. “But we’re not going to fall under that kind of pressure. We know that they’re going to be confident, they’re playing at home and they’re rubbing it in our faces how daunting it’s going to be in front of their fans and how we’ve seen nothing yet. We’re not going to fall for those traps. We just know that we’re going to be in for a good, hard, solid game against a quality opposition.” (source)
Make no mistake; the players, coaching staff and administrators have known for sometime that this entire AFC Champions’ League campaign has been one of extraordinary challenge, but also one that they deserve to be part of and where their victories have been well won. There has been none of the arrogance and dare I say sense of entitlement that has oozed from clubs that have boasted about their chances before being beaten by the Wanderers (hello Guangzhou Evergrande), nor as there been a self-pity or contemplation of the imbalance between club resources. Instead Popovic and the rest of the squad have turned up to every match with the innate self-belief that comes not from ego, but from achievement on the pitch and solidarity within all involved in the mission to hand.
2. Acknowledge but don’t fear the Al Hilal’s Home Turf
There has been talk again and again and again from the fans of Al Hilal, the media, the coach, the owners…everyone involved with the Saudi powerhouse, about the imposing quantity and quality of support that last week’s losers will bring on board when at home in Riyadh this week. I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that these kinds of statements are just nervous dog whistles; Al Hilal will have a packed King Fahd Stadium awaiting the Wanderers and almost 99.9% of the 65,000 spectators will be backing the home team. Then there is the much talked about heat, the potential for any shenanigans from the locals, and the distance involved in traveling to Riyadh for the Wanderers.
However recent Wanderers’ experiences have shown that they are capable of dealing with similar circumstances and coming through with flying colours. The away leg to Guangzhou Evergrande was without doubt the hardest faced by any Australian football team since the away leg of the World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay played by the Socceroos in Montevideo in 2001. In fact, whilst there was some nastiness involving the Socceroos when they arrived in Montevideo in 2001 the level of bastardry and the difficulty of the task at hand for the Wanderers when they went to Guangzhou was many times worse. From phone calls in the middle of the night through to staged bus accidents, and of course the huge disparity in terms of resources and fans available for the home side against the Wanderers, that Guangzhou Evergrande semi was exactly what was needed to give the Australian hope for Champions’ League glory an insight into away intimidation. And the players themselves know this:
“I always go back to that game against Guangzhou Evergrande and about how that was fantastic preparation for this,” he said. “We went through tough times on that trip. Mentally that’s not easy to take. We came through strong… and we can take that experience into this game.” (Brendon Santalab)
So having been through an arguably less pleasant experience than the one they are currently enduring, plus with a solid pre-season 10 day training camp run in Dubai, it can be confidently said that there are no fears within the squad when it comes to running out against the vociferous and fierce opposition of Al Hilal’s home support in a very warm Riyadh, thousands of kilometres away from Wanderland. This group of players, staff and even the fourteen Wanderers fans traveling to watch the final leg are not going to buckle easily where others wouldn’t even be willing or able to go.
3. Don’t Chase The Game Unless Necessary
The Wanderers have got results away from home in the AFC Champions’ League through replicating the same dogged and highly structured defence that has won them games at home not just in this tournament, but also in the A-League. Last week’s first leg was a typical example of what the Wanderers do so well, insofar as they usually deny the opposition clear chances on goal from open play and dead ball situations alike and thus keeping a clean sheet, Whilst they are known to concede they usually can score to balance the result. For example, with their 3-1 loss to Hiroshima Sanfrecce, their 2-1 loss to Guangzhou Evergrande and their 0-0 draw to FC Seoul the Wanderers have either built upon or set the stage for the needed result from back home (such as the respective 2-0, 1-0 and 2-0 wins in order against the same teams at Wanderland), and it is this ability to deter the opposition’s attack from overwhelming the Wanderers with goals that will be needed again for this final match against Al Hilal.
The impregnanble defence of Ante Covic in front of the Wanderers goal against Al Hilal
Defensively the Wanderers are extremely good, and of course so much of this is built upon the two key players Nikolai Topor Stanley and Ante Covic. Having said that Mullen, Golec and Hamill have each made their presence felt, and in front of them Iaccopo La Rocca and recently Matteo Poljak have also helped keep down the oppositions’ chances for goals through the midfield. There is the possibility that Matthew Spiranovic may return for some game time however if last week’s match is any guide it won’t be too early and it may well be in a central midfielder’s role. However it will be Topor Stanley and Covic who will need to be at their best, and I would suggest they would do well to adjust slightly the emphasis on ball clearances from the back third of the field. The ‘if in doubt hoof it out’ system did the job at Wanderland however I would like to think that in Riyadh there will be more controlled disposal of dangerous balls.
As for the contrary aspect of attack, there is no need (unless they go down 2 early goals) for the Wanderers to chase the game. If they can stay compact and ride out the inevitable pressure from Al Hial they can hopefully do again what was achieved last week via Tomi Juric’s goal. Counter-punches are a frequent route for Wanderers success and with hopefully Labinot Haliti, Brendan Santalab and Tomi Juric all possible goal raiders there is every reason to believe that at least one goal can come to the red and black. If that happens then the task for Al Hilal becomes even more onerous.
4. Harness Vitor’s Frustration and Use It Intelligently
He has been portrayed as a genius and as a villain and yet he only has two full starst with the Wanderers in any competitive match so far. Vitor Saba has had a sizable impact off the bench thanks to his work during the 1-0 win over Guangzhou, and whilst he had only a few minutes on the pitch at Wanderland against Al Hilal last Saturday his class was obvious. Now there are stories like this coming out of the Wanderers’ camp:
Vitor Saba is unhappy starting games from the bench but is prepared to sacrifice minutes on the field if it means Western Sydney Wanderers return to Australia with the Asian Champions League trophy.
The Brazilian playmaker is not satisfied with a role as a substitute, having moved to Australia with the hope of playing regular football. Saba has started just one game in the Asian Champions League campaign and watched the bulk of the first leg of the final against Al-Hilal from the bench before entering as an 83rd-minute substitute.
He is eager to establish himself as a first-team player but admits it is difficult to argue against the selection policy due to the team’s performance and results in Asia. In the best interests of the team, Saba is prepared to bide his time and take his chances when they arrive.
“Of course I am not satisfied, but I respect his [coach Tony Popovic’s] decision because we are winning. I think every time that I am coming from the bench, I am coming for a purpose and my purpose is to help the team, and I think I am doing a good job. But, if you ask me if I want to sit on the bench? No, I do not want to. But now I have to think about what is most important and that’s the trophy … If I have to come five minutes, or 10 or 45, I have to be humble, stay on the bench and then come and do my best.” (source)
Arguably somewhat volatile, I would suggest that Popa can and should keep Saba on the bench and then bring him into the match sometime in the second half to either give a tired Al Hilal more concerns in the midfield, plus relieve pressure on the Wanderers players in a similar role or out the back. Additionally, as a true no.10 he can act as a distributor for the likes of Juric, Santalab, Haliti or maybe even Mark Bridge. His eagerness to do well and his freshness, combined with the obvious talent his possesses will give Al Hilal some major food for thought.
Vitor Saba; the Wanderers midfielder who makes everyone pay attention
5. Keep The Ball Longer
One of the less impressive aspects of the Wanderers’ play in recent weeks has been their inability to retain the ball for long stretches and retain possession. In the match against Al Hilal last Saturday that issue reared its ugly head again and whilst possession for its own sake is not a match winner, denying the opposition a chance to use the ball to score goals is. In what could be very warm conditions having to chase turnovers could quickly erode the Wanderers’ fitness, vaunted as it is, and so making sure that al Hilal are not given any chance to intercept or steal loose balls particularly in the Wanderers’ half is of paramount concern.
6. When does Tomi Come On?
With injury worries over both Brendon Santalab (shoulder dislocation) and Tomi Juric (groin) the question is not will one be subbed off for the other, but when. Assuming that Santalab is able to start (and he himself has very confidence he can at least play) then I would think he would be the better option at the beginning, with Tomi to come on after him. I know that there have been several media pundits and experts who have said that Tomi needs to start, however I don’t believe he will be most effective from the get go right now. If he remains benched until at least the first half ends, or in a worse case scenario the Wanderers ship two goals without answer, then Popovic has the luxury of bringing him on with fresh legs and the ability to hopefully repeat his intimidating runs from last week. It may well be in fact that Juric will not be able to or need to score, and I would not be surprised if someone like Bridge or Haliti earns that distinctive honour. Popovic has a gun striker he can use when he believes he will have the most impact, and those who are probably going to line up won’t be that much less dangerous.
Tomi Juric: Wanderers striker and the man who gives Al Hilal nightmares
7. Shannon Cole: Mr Ubiquitous
An unsung hero of the Wanderers, Shannon Cole has been one of the best performers for the Wanderers in the Champions’ League tournament, and I expect him to start yet again as a right attacking midfielder. He was not embarrassed by his opposition last week, and in previous games has scored goals when needed. Whilst he may find himself at some stage of the game is either subbed for Spiranovic or Saba, I am certain he will be the Wanderers own ‘mini Phillip Lahm’. If defensive support is needed he should also be able to shore up his flank as well.
Shannon Cole: unsung hero for the Wanderers in ACL 2014
8. Watch for a change in style and new players from Al Hilal
Last week Al Hilal were nominally playing a style of match they were arguably unsuited to, looking to maximise speed, width and attack instead of their more traditional possession based game. Additionally their usual skipper, striker Yasser Al Qahtani is back after a suspension which meant he missed the first leg of the final in Wanderland. Thus Tony Popovic and the Wanderers on the pitch will need to be aware of actual and potential changes to the line up and style they will confront in the upcoming away leg. It will be interesting to see if Reghecampf tries to vary things a bit, as what was put on the field last Saturday night wasn’t bad. Either way there are some unknowns yet to be verified to come out of Al Hilal.
There are lots of other aspects of the match that bear some degree of examination when trying to work out how the Wanderers can win tonight. Discipline, interaction with the referee and other officials, the potential influence of one of the Wanderers’ squaddies (e.g. Jason Trifiro) or a younger player (Daniel Alessi perhaps, or Kwabena Appiah). The burden of two losses in A-League grand finals must be acknowledged and the mental or psychological ability of the players to get past those results will also go some way in determining if they can snatch the trophy in Riyadh. Finally, you are only as good as your opposition allows you to be, and in the case of al Hilal they have shown both a susceptibility of not being able to finish against the Wanderers, and letting the A-League team get one over them. The result is too hard to pick, but my heart is where it should be;
Come on you Wanderers!