Wild celebrations in Parramatta
They’ve done it. Western Sydney Wanderers have achieved the seemingly impossible to become the first Australian champions of Asia. A club that didn’t exist three years ago has now clinched the greatest result in Australian club football history by toppling Asia’s club of the century to win a historic champions league title.
The Wanderers hung on by the skin of their teeth, with a mixture of desperation and luck denying their hosts, who looked destined to win a third ACL title. It was exhausting just to watch as the suburban club from Sydney’s western suburbs braved wave after wave of attack from the club of the Saudi kingdom. They survived the heat of the Arabian desert, the intimidation from nearly 70,000 passionate male fans, laser pointers directed into their eyes and most importantly a match against a team that feels aggrieved not to be on the podium.
The Wanderers didn’t arrive at the King Fahd Stadium to outplay Al-Hilal, they weren’t even here to match them on the field and if no other team in Asia could up until this point, how can you blame them? They saved their most desperate defending for their hardest test and with the luck of seeing four penalty claims waved away.
It was clear from kick-off that the Wanderers faced the football equivalent of a firing squad. There was little they could do to stop Al-Hilal controlling the match so their best hope was making sure their opponents missed when the inevitable shots at goal came. What they lacked in possession the Wanderers made up for with defensive steel. Playing with 11 defenders in different positions, Brendon Santalab the most advanced, the Wanderers frustrated their opponents just as they did in Parramatta last week.
The Blue Wave of Saudi football crashed against the defensive wall of the Wanderers that initially stopped a flow of possession from becoming clear-cut chances. When the chances arrived, they spurned them as Brazilian star Thiago Neves missed a free header from close range.
The hosts’ finishing failed them and so too did their luck. Al-Hilal felt they should’ve been awarded a penalty on the half-hour mark when Salem Al-Dawsari’s shot struck the arm of Santalab. Referee Yuichi Nishimura waved play-on instead of pointing to the spot deeming the contact unavoidable.
What was frustration simmered to fury on the stroke of half time when Al-Hilal were denied a clear-cut penalty. On the back foot defending a counter-attack, the Wanderers were finally exposed allowing Nawaf Al-Abid through on goal, only to be hauled down by Antony Golec in the box. Again Nishimura waved play-on for what appeared a clear penalty decision. The protests followed the referee down the tunnel during the break and are sure to continue for days in the Kingdom.
With the Wanderers having barely any possession beyond clearances, Tony Popovic brought on Brazilian playmaker Vitor Saba to gain some grip on the play. Despite the change, matters stayed the same. The Wanderers had little more influence on the tempo and Al-Hilal were denied yet another penalty. Santalab again was the accused as a raised arm blocked a cross inside the box but for the third time that night, Nishimura had nothing of it.
Al-Hilal captain Yasser Al-Qahtani was brought on and made an immediate impact, almost delivering for his vocal fans. Al-Qahtani, inside the box, controlled a cross with his right foot before unleashing with his left and looked certain to find the back of the net. His shot beat Covic, finally, but an unfortunate outswing skimmed the wrong side of the upright.
The mood turned toxic inside the King Fahd Stadium when Nishimura waved away a fourth penalty claim of the evening when Covic appeared to have brought down his man inside the box. He was second to the ball as his man tumbled over but yet again it was the same result from the referee. Fans ripped an official AFC banner from the top tier, throwing it below in a clear message of their disgust.
Al-Hilal even beat Nikolai Topor-Stanley in the air but headers were flashed wide or into Covic’s arms. Al-Hilal’s’ fluency eroded into panic in a sign the Wanderers plan was working. Nasser Al-Shamrani, Asia’s second leading scorer fired a point-blank header into the side of the net and then when Al-Qahtani finally hit a shot at close range he could not beat Covic. The Wanderers goalkeeper did enough to fumble the ball anxiously wide, ending any hopes of Asia’s club of the century adding another jewel to their crown. A flurry of punches and spats from Al-Hilal met the final whistle but it did nothing to dent Western Sydney Wanderers conquering Asia. Next up, Real Madrid, San Lorenzo and the Club World Cup.