AFC Champions League Preview: Sanfrecce Hiroshima v Western Sydney Wanderers
Past five matches (in all competitions):
Sanfrecce should either be licking their lips at the prospect of a facing a team broken by their A-League Grand Final defeat on Sunday, or worried about the possibility of finding themselves on the receiving end of an emphatic response to that disappointment.
Tony Popovic will surely hope it is the latter scenario, but getting the Wanderers players up for this game and focused is one of the biggest psychological tests he has faced as a head coach.
The big issue:
Sanfrecce – Despite sitting a respectable fourth in the J-League standings, Japan's reigning champions have reason to fear their opponents this week. Hajime Moriyasu's team have only managed two wins from their last six games in all competitions.
One of those was their 1-0 victory over the Central Coast Mariners on matchday six of the ACL group stage, a narrow triumph that scuppered the possibility of an all-Australian knockout tie.
Sanfrecce had to labour to get past the Mariners, and in the Wanderers they will encounter a team just as determined defensively, but able to mount considerably more of a threat going forward than a depleted Central Coast were able to in that one.
Wanderers – Western Sydney will be without centre-back Nikolai Topor-Stanley due to the knee injury that forced him off in the grand final. It was always likely that Michael Beauchamp, rested for the decider in Brisbane, would partner Daniel Mullen, eligible only for the ACL, in this game. A host of other changes can be expected from Popovic after his players were taken to extra-time on Sunday.
The game breaker:
Having begun the Grand Final on the bench, it's likely Tomi Juric will start in Hiroshima. The promising, potent young forward has perhaps been unfortunate to find himself second choice behind Brendon Santalab in 2013-14, with several niggling injuries affecting his position in the pecking order.
Santalab may work tirelessly in the Wanderers' cause, but he isn't as clinical as Juric, who might perhaps have done better with the two half-chances his older colleague wasted due to poor first touches on Sunday. If Juric is presented with similar openings on Wednesday, he must seize them to prove his superiority.
We expect the Wanderers to attempt to keep it tight in this one, and judging by Sanfrecce's struggle to break down the Mariners on matchday six, Popovic's side are more than capable of coming away from the game with a point in a goalless or low-scoring draw. Don't bet against them snatching a winner on the counter either. But will their grand final heartbreak prove to be an opponent the gritty Wanderers can't get the better of?