Western Sydney Wanderers midfielder Vitor Saba unhappy with bench role for Asian Champions League final

Vitor Saba is unhappy starting games from the bench but is prepared to sacrifice minutes on the field if it means Western Sydney Wanderers return to Australia with the Asian Champions League trophy.

The Brazilian playmaker is not satisfied with a role as a substitute, having moved to Australia with the hope of playing regular football. Saba has started just one game in the Asian Champions League campaign and watched the bulk of the first leg of the final against Al-Hilal from the bench before entering as an 83rd-minute substitute.

He is eager to establish himself as a first-team player but admits it is difficult to argue against the selection policy due to the team’s performance and results in Asia. In the best interests of the team, Saba is prepared to bide his time and take his chances when they arrive.

“Of course I am not satisfied, but I respect his [coach Tony Popovic’s] decision because we are winning. I think every time that I am coming from the bench, I am coming for a purpose and my purpose is to help the team, and I think I am doing a good job. But, if you ask me if I want to sit on the bench? No, I do not want to. But now I have to think about what is most important and that’s the trophy … If I have to come five minutes, or 10 or 45, I have to be humble, stay on the bench and then come and do my best.”

Starting in the second leg of the Asian Champions League final will bear significant importance for the 24-year-old as it could mark a poignant moment of an apprentice surpassing his master. The Wanderers hold a 1-0 advantage over the Saudi club, putting Saba in pole position to claim a major title at the expense of Thiago Neves, his mentor for years at Brazilian giant Flamengo.

Throughout his youth development at the Rio de Janeiro club, Saba was denied a chance at first-team football due to now Al-Hilal midfielder Neves’ firm grip on a place in the starting line-up. While there is still one more game standing in the way of a historic Asian title for the Wanderers, Saba feels confident enough to joke that the time has come to excel at Neves’ expense. “Now, I think he’s won too much. Now is my time,” he said. “I think he has enough achievements in his career.”

The two were close companions in the red and black hoops of Brazil, where, alongside former world pLayer of the year Ronaldinho, Neves took the young Saba under his wing during his formative years.

“At the time, one of my closest relationships on the team was with him [Neves],” Saba said. “But, I never played. It was Thiago Neves and Ronaldinho in the midfield. I never managed to play because I was coming from the youth team and it was very difficult when you have players like this on the squad. But I learned a lot, I can possibly say that these two, Thiago Neves and Ronaldinho, were the two players I learned from most.”

Trying to cut his teeth in a line-up clogged with internationals and star players was never easy, but years later and half a world away, Saba is daring to dream of unheralded victory over the man he much admired.

“It is a very interesting story with football and what it can do with our lives,” he said. “First, I didn’t manage to play because he was there and now I changed continents twice and now I can win a very important title against this player. It’s interesting and it’s motivation as well.”

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