Fortune favours the brave, they say, and yet nothing seems to be going the way of the Western Sydney Wanderers.
Almost a month after their against-the-odds Asian Champions League triumph, Tony Popovic’s men are yet to translate their continental form into domestic superiority.
The A-League has been a stomping ground for the Red and Black throughout its short history. Tony Popovic’s ability to assemble an experienced side in conjunction with his enthusiasm in developing home-grown talent has given the Wanderers balance right across the pitch which most teams would envy.
While most managers either neglect their accomplished warriors and give their young guns a turn or vice versa, Popovic’s tactical nous allows him to incorporate both. The fact they have an A-League premiership and an ACL title to their name speaks volumes of their success.
Yet, although they currently find themselves at the pinnacle of Asian football, things back home are less impressive.
Ironically, the Wanderers are victims of their own continental success. Earlier in the season with the ACL, Tony Popovic was forced to chop and change his starting XI as a method of ensuring that his first team key players would be fresh come late October.
Players the likes of Brendan Hamill, Kwabena Appiah-Kubi and Daniel Mullen – who were more often than not forced to settle with a bit part – were shoved into the deep end against tactically disciplined opposition.
The two-time A-League runners-up paid the price and their early season defeats which consisted of a 4-1 rout against Melbourne Victory and a 3-2 Sydney Derby loss suggested that 2014-15 would be a cruel wake-up call for a side who were still in seventh heaven.
Tactically, the Wanderers looked a shadow of themselves, their defence suddenly looked disjointed and vulnerable. Their high midfield press was virtually non-existent, which allowed players like Gui Finkler and Terry Antonis the freedom to weave their magic. Without the firepower of someone like Tomi Juric (injured), and no longer able to call on the marauding runs of the tireless Youssef Hersi (Perth Glory) and creativity of Shinji Ono (Consadole Sapporo), chances were few and far between.
Claiming continental silverware, arguably the greatest achievement in Australian football thus far, was supposed to have lifted Popovic’s troops to even greater heights; the gold star on the club’s crest a reminder of the sweet taste of success. Back home, though, things quickly turned sour with consecutive defeats to Wellington and Perth Glory.
Three points from seven matches is a far cry from their record 10 match unbeaten streak last season. Recent results, though, suggest that the positive results are on the horizon.
Tony Popovic’s reaction to Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Sydney FC at Pirtek said it all. Unlike his stern facial expression following their loss to Sydney FC earlier this season, a match which the Wanderers arguably had the game in the bag after taking an early 2-0 lead, the 41-year-old cut a more relaxed figure following their draw. The tactician seemed certain that things would take a turn for the better sooner rather than later.
In fact, the Red and Black were unlucky not to have run away with the win – perhaps, on another night, things may have been different.
With the early stages proving to be a one-sided affair, the home side finally made full use of their dominance by taking the lead in the 30th minute, with Juric once again tucking the ball into the back of the net.
Prior to that, though, the Wanderers had conjured several opportunities which, had it not been for some fine goalkeeping and a hint of luck for the Sky Blues, would’ve put them in a great position for their first win.
As fate would have it, though, Bernie Ibini took things into his own hands to level the score, and the Wanderers were unable to find an answer.
“When you have three or four one-on-ones with the goalkeeper…you struggle to get that in four or five game and we had that in 45 minutes,” Popovic lamented post-match.
“On another day could have gone in four or five nil at half-time. To perform like that in a derby…I’m not sure a derby has been as one-sided as that.”
So the signs are promising.
Despite his inability to find the back of the net given the plethora of chances on offer, new-signing Nikita Rukavytsya looks the goods on the left flank.
His pace, skill on the ball and the ability to create some sort of goal scoring situation from nothing makes him a threat to any defence. On the other side, Romeo Castelen’s eagerness to get behind defences with pace and skill is promising.
The back-four have become tighter following some dreadful performances earlier this season and finally recapturing the glory of days gone by and needless to say, Juric has popped up with goals when most needed.
Fitness remains an issue for the players though, and their hectic schedule ahead of them, which includes a Club World Cup match in Morocco next week, will not help their bid for some sort of consistency.
Popovic seems far from worried, commenting: “There’s a reason why we have this schedule, because of our success. In the last three games we’ve shown we can deal with it and all that’s missing is the win. I know that will come.”
Following a topsy-turvy start to the season, it feels as if success isn’t too far away. The Wanderers are finally hitting their stride. It’s all up for grabs.