SHAFAQNA – The youngest of the Australian A-League clubs became the first to win the Asian Champions League title, with Western Sydney Wanderers holding Saudi powerhouse Al Hilal to a 0-0 draw in the second leg of the final for a 1-0 aggregate victory.
Western Sydney spent most of the game defending as Al Hilal poured forward in waves off attack in front of a frenetic home crowd, but goalkeeper Ante Covic made a string of saves to keep the two-time champions scoreless for a second straight game.
“The game was everything you expect from a final,” Wanderers coach Tony Popovic said. “They are a very good team, they had fantastic support, but we are an excellent team and we showed over two legs how good we are.”
Western Sydney was playing in the continental competition for the first time, and was only founded in 2012. Now the Wanderers will represent Asia at the FIFA Club World Cup next month in Morocco.
“We are extremely honored to be able to do that and we will certainly do our confederation proud,” Popovic said. “We will go there to give it our very best, we will enjoy the experience, and it is a fantastic achievement for our club in such a short space of time.”
The Saudi team was frustrated against a defence intent on not conceding, the Wanderers relying on Tomi Juric’s goal in the 1-0 home win last weekend to hold up and deliver them the title.
Al Hilal appealed for a penalty shortly before halftime when Nawaf Al Abed appeared to be brought down by Antony Golec in the area, and continued protesting when leaving the field for the break.
The hosts had late chances to level the aggregate score and force extra time, but Covic saved an effort by Yasser Al Qahtani with five minutes remaining, and then denied Nasser Al Shamrani moments later.
Defeat meant that Hilal not only missed the chance to claim their third Asian title but also a cash windfall of over SR1million – $26,000 per player and staff member – promised by Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal had they won.
Al Hilal’s Romanian coach Laurentiu Reghecampf said his team played the better football and deserved a better outcome.
“We had bad luck and we had many chances. We were the best team over the two games,” he said. “If you lose one game when you play bad, you can congratulate the other team. But when you play how we played and they play how they played, we feel very bad.
“I think the fans saw what we did in this match. The players tried their best. We didn’t deserve to lose this game.”
The Wanderers campaign has attracted increasing attention this season, and has been all the more impressive given the fact that A-League teams operate under an annual salary cap of 2.5 million Australian dollars ($2.2 million) that covers the entire squad except two ‘marquee’ players who can be paid outside the cap.
“This triumph will resonate throughout the game and across our nation,” Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop said. “The impact will be felt beyond sport and will speak to Australia’s future in the ‘Asian Century’ and football’s pivotal role.
Gallop said at the heart of the title was “one the most amazing sporting stories we’ve ever seen in Australian sport.”
“It’s a start-up (club) less than three years old that today stands proudly as the champion of Asia. That says it all,” he said.
The highlight for Australian clubs previously was Adelaide United’s run to the final in 2008 before a comprehensive loss to Gamba Osaka.
The Wanderers weren’t about to get stage fright.
After topping its group including 2012 Asian title holder Ulsan Horangi in its debut appearance in the Asian Champions League, the Western Sydney team had three tough encounters in the knockout stage.
The Wanderers beat Japanese champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the second round, eliminated a star-studded Guangzhou Evergrande squad, the reigning Asian champion that is guided by World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, at the quarterfinal stage. They booked a place in the final with a semifinal victory over 2013 finalist FC Seoul.
“It is still a little surreal for me as a coach,” Popovic said. “For me, I am just proud for these players and our club. The first time in the competition, to win it, I think in the future we will really understand how special this run has been and how it was to win this title.
“We don’t have the resources or the funds that some of these other teams have, but we have something that money can’t buy, the desire to win, the resilience to play for each other and do anything they can to win, no money can buy that and that’s what these players have in abundance.”