ACL champs prevail as Wanderers lock horns with Antlers

Western Sydney Wanderers FC have scored twice in the last four minutes to make the perfect start to their AFC Champions League defence with a courageous 3-1 road win against Kashima Antlers in Japan on Tuesday night. 

It appeared the match would end all square after Shouma Doi’s volley got the home side level after the Wanderers hit the front early in the second half through Gen Shoji’s own goal.

But as they showed all throughout last year’s campaign, the Wanderers save something special for the ACL and struck twice late on to claim a valuable three points.

New Japanese recruit Yojiro Takahagi edged the visitors in front four minutes from time when he tucked home Mark Bridge’s shot-cum-pass, before Bridge did it all himself in stoppage time.

While there are struggling for wins in the Hyundai A-League, the Wanderers have shown they won’t give up their continental title without a huge fight.

The only negative for the Wanderers was a shoulder injury for Shannon Cole which is likely to rule him out of Saturday night’s Sydney derby but the mood should be lifted around ‘Wanderland’ with this result.

With coach Tony Popovic forced to watch from the stands due to a suspension from last year’s competition, it was a nervy start from the visitors early on.

Young goal-keeper Dean Bouzanis was given his first ACL start in place of veteran Ante Covic and he had to be alert inside seven minutes to keep out a dangerous free-kick.

An out-swinging ball came through a sea of players before Shoji diverted it towards goal but the Bouzanis got down well to keep it out right on the goal-line.

While the Wanderers were content to sit back and absorb much of the pressure, they did have their moments going forward with the best opportunity falling to Tomi Juric.

The Socceroos produced a great weaving run on the left, mesmerizing his defender with some great play before his powerful shot was saved then deflected wide for a corner.

The home side continued to probe for the rest of the half without seriously threatening the Wanderers’ goal.

But they should have edged in front in first-half stoppage time, Yamamoto Shuto waste a great chance when he scuffed his shot wide after a mix-up between Bouzanis and his centre-backs.

It proved a costly miss as the Wanderers drew first blood.

Juric showed great strength to hold off a couple of defenders and flick-on Yusuke Tanaka’s long throw, the ball making its way to Bridge at the back post.

Bridge’s volley might have been going wide but the ball struck Shoji and went in past a stranded Hitoshi Sogahata.

It was a good reward for a spirited showing to that point but their lead lasted just 14 minutes.

Impressive Brazilian Caio wriggled free down the right before delivering out a superb cross which was emphatically volleyed home by Doi.

All the momentum was now with the Antlers who spurred on by a vocal home crowd pushed hard for a winner.

But they were sprung on the counter-attack with just four minutes left, Takahagi starting a finishing the move when he cleverly tucked home Bridge’s attempted strike from close range and then Bridge put the icing on the cake at the death.

Kashima Antlers 1 (Doi 68’)

Western Sydney Wanderers FC 3 (Shoji og 54’, Takahagi 86’, Bridge 90+3)