Wanderers in fairytale run to AFC Champions League final
This year`s AFC Champions League final has set up a contest between the competition`s newest team and the continent`s most decorated side for the title of Asia`s best football club.
Sydney: This year`s AFC Champions League final has set up a contest between the competition`s newest team and the continent`s most decorated side for the title of Asia`s best football club.
Formed just two years ago, Australia`s Western Sydney Wanderers are just a step away from lifting the continental title and earning a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup after a fairytale lead into Saturday`s first leg at home.
The Wanderers have knocked out several top sides, including defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande of China in the quarter-finals and 2013 runners-up FC Seoul of South Korea in the semi-finals.
But coach Tony Popovic doesn`t want to hear his team have done well just to qualify, saying the club has always had high ambitions.
"We don`t want to be a club where you look back and say, you made the final, well done, but you didn`t produce when it mattered," he said at a press conference Friday.
Western Sydney are looking to become the first Australian club to lift the title, but standing in their way in the final are Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal.
Al Hilal have amassed dozens of international and domestic titles during their 57-year history, including a pair of Asian Club Championships in 1991 and 2000.
"I`ll have no fear looking in their eyes," Popovic said.
"While I`m extremely proud of the group, we`re here to win the final. Our only focus is to be champions."
The final will be decided over two games, with the first leg at Parramatta Stadium in Sydney`s western suburbs on Saturday and the return match at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on November 1.
Much could hinge on the opening encounter at the Wanderers` compact 20,000-seat home ground, where the Australian club has proven formidable during its debut season in the AFC Champions League.
The Wanderers lost 3-1 to 2012 champions Ulsan Hyundai of Korea in their opening game in February, but they have since won five consecutive matches there without conceding a goal.
While Western Sydney could be without forward Brendon Santalab due to a hamstring strain, Popovic is confident that his side can rise to the occasion once again.While Al Hilal have twice been crowned Asian champions, this is the first time that they have reached the final since the competition evolved into the AFC Champions League in 2003.
They took only two points from their first three games this season, but then went on with striker Nassir Al Shamrani netting 10 goals and goalkeeper Abdullah Al Sdairy keeping eight consecutive clean sheets which culminated in a 3-0 victory over highly-fancied Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates in the first leg of the semi-finals.
Despite losing 2-1 in the return match, they progressed 4-2 on aggregate and have left little to chance for the final, arriving Down Under a full week before the first leg to acclimatise.
"We`re a very big team -- one of the biggest in Asia -- but we respect our opponent and in a final it`s 50-50," Al Hilal coach Laurentiu Reghecampf said Friday.
"Tomorrow will be a very tough game for us but I hope for a good result."
One player who is determined to taste glory with Al Hilal is Korean defender Kwak Tae-hwi, who captained Ulsan to victory two years ago before moving to Saudi Arabia.
"A second victory in the AFC Champions League would rewrite history for myself and Al Hilal," said the South Korean international centre-back.
"The AFC Champions League is very big and I hope to win it again."