The biggest game in Wanderers’ history? Absolutely. And one of the biggest ever in Australian football as Al-Hilal – with the Saudi Royal Family in tow – look to gain a precious first leg advantage at Wanderland on Saturday night.
Meanwhile Wanderers will hope their much vaunted defensive wall can build a winning platform for the second leg in seven days’ time.
Parramatta Stadium, Sydney
Kick-Off: 7.30PM (Local), (7.30PM AEDT)
Western Sydney Wanderers FC: Ante Covic, Shannon Cole, Daniel Mullen, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Brendan Hamill, Matthew Spiranovic, Antony Golec, Labinot Haliti, Mateo Poljak, Vitor Saba, Tomi Juric, Brendon Santalab, Kwabena Appiah, Iacopo La Rocca, Mark Bridge, Brendon Santalab, Dean Bouzanis, Jason Trifiro, Alusine Fofanah, Jaushua Sotirio, Daniel Alessi
Al Hilal: Abdullah Al Sudairi, Kwak Tae-Hwi, Abdullah Al Zoari, Saud Khariri, Rodrigo Junior (Diago), Thiago Neves, Mihai Pintilii, Salman Al Faraj, Salem Al Dawsari, Nasser Al Shamrani, Yasser Al Shahrani, Fahad Al Thunayyan, Sultan Al Deayea, Hamad Al Hamad, Yousef Al Salem, Nawaf Al Abid, Abdulaziz Al Dawsari, Mohammed Al Qarni, Mohammed Al Shalhoub,
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While they don’t carry the best form into the decider, they have often saved their best for the ACL. Their victories over Guangzhou Evergrande and FC Seoul – both of last season’s finalists – in the knockout phase is testament to just how well the Wanderers have performed in the competition.
Coach Tony Popovic is likely to stick with a tried and trusted side for the first leg, with striker Brendon Santalab (hamstring) and defender Matthew Spiranovic (ankle) the main two players under injury clouds. Dutchman Romeo Castelen is not in the ACL squad meaning Kwabena Appiah and Shannon Cole could feature down the right, with either Tomi Juric or Labinot Haliti a chance to lead the attack.
Their opponents are royalty when it comes to Saudi footy and have won the Asian Champions League on two previous occasions (1991 and 2000). Laurentiu Reghecampf’s squad is brimming with top quality talent, featuring a host of Saudi internationals and a few exceptional foreigners.
Their ACL form this season has been near impeccable, conceding just two goals in their last nine matches in the competition, thanks largely to Korean centre-back Tae-Hwi Kwak and Brazilian defender Digao.
But it’s in attack where they look most dangerous with the likes of former Brazilian international Thiago Neves pulling the strings in midfield and striker Nasser Al-Shamrani in prolific goal-scoring form.
Skipper Saud Khariri is a doubt due to a throat infection which saw him in hospital this week while veteran attacker Yasser Al-Qahtani is suspended.
ROUTE TO GOAL
Can the red and black rediscover their defensive mojo. Sloppy mistakes and slack marking has littered their first two Hyundai A-League games and if that continues they will almost certainly be punished.
Al Shamrani is not a player you can afford to give too many opportunities to and with 10 ACL goals this campaign, he is the competition’s second highest scorer this year.
The expected return of Juric to the Wanderers attack is a huge boost though, with his physical presence and ability to hold the ball up in attack sure to be a key in the first leg.
WHO’S BEEN IN THE SPOTLIGHT THIS WEEK?
The whole Wanderers team. After a forgettable start to the Hyundai A-League season, the Wanderers need to put their troubles aside and focus on their date with destiny.
If any side can thrive under adversity and with almost everyone writing them off it’s Popovic’s well-drilled outfit. After being sent off in the derby on Saturday night, Vitor Saba will hope to repay Popovic and Wanderers fans.
Neither of these sides brings winning form into the final. The Wanderers have ensured a tumultuous start to the Hyundai A-League season, losing their first two matches of the campaign to Melbourne Victory and bitter rivals Sydney FC. It’s not just the losses which are a concern for Popovic’s troops but also their struggles in defence, conceding seven goals in those two defeats.
Al Hilal slumped to a surprise 1-0 defeat at home to Al-Shahab on the weekend to slip to fourth in the Saudi Pro league. It follows on from their 2-1 loss to Al Ain in their semi-final second leg.
DID YOU KNOW?
Al Hilal play at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh – the venue for one of the Socceroos’ worst-ever results. It was there we endured a 6-0 loss to Brazil in the 1997 Confederations Cup (where Mark Viduka was sent off). Ronaldo and Romario with a hat-trick each in a side preparing for the France 98 World Cup.
Western Sydney Wanderers 1-0 Al Hilal
With a tough trip to Riyadh in front of more than 60,000 fans for the second leg, it’s vital the Wanderers get a positive result here – or at the very least keep a clean sheet.
The Wanderers haven’t conceded at home in the knockout phase and with a noisy RBB behind them I’m tipping them to do it again and take a lead to Saudi Arabia in seven days’ time.