Western Sydney Wanderers unfazed by Saudi giants Hilal ahead of Asian Champions League final’s first-leg match

From the outset, Western Sydney Wanderers’ first Asian Champions League campaign has been a leap into the unknown. That perhaps explains the club’s lack of trepidation ahead of Saturday’s championship first-leg match against Saudi Arabia’s biggest club, Al Hilal.

Western Sydney Wanderers coach Tony Popovic has a laugh during a news conference for their Asian Champions League first-leg final match against Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal Football Club at Sydney.       Jason Reed / Reuters
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SYDNEY // From the outset, Western Sydney Wanderers’ first Asian Champions League campaign has been a leap into the unknown.

That perhaps explains the club’s lack of trepidation ahead of Saturday’s championship first-leg match against Saudi Arabia’s biggest club, Al Hilal.

In contrast to the no-frills team from Sydney’s working-class west, founded only two years ago as an expansion club in Australia’s top-flight A-League, Hilal boast a rich heritage, powerful connections in the Saudi royal family and a trophy cabinet crowded with domestic silverware and two Asian titles.

The Wanderers have demonstrated that reputations count for nothing on game day, having overcome Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande and FC Seoul in the knockout rounds.

In facing Hilal, Wanderers defender Antony Golec suggested ignorance was bliss.

“I wouldn’t have a clue who they are to be honest,” Golec said this week. “I’ll let them do the Googling on us.

“It doesn’t concern me if they’re the best club in the world or the worst. We just focus each day and then we’ll take the game as it comes.”

Since arriving in Sydney, Hilal have done little to shed any light for their opponents, or endear themselves to local media, as they have been holed up in a luxury hotel near the Sydney Harbour bridge and have declined interview requests.

Local media reported that Hilal rejected the more thrifty Wanderers’ first offer of a five-star hotel, another element of a storyline emphasising a game matching local blue-collar battlers and pampered tourists.

Hilal’s coach, the Romanian Laurentiu Reghecampf, appeared at the mandatory ACL news conference yesterday and said: “It’s the final and everything is possible.

“The two best teams get to the final, that’s why it will be 50-50.

“We are a very big team, one of the biggest teams in Asia, but that is not enough to win one game. History is not playing. We have to do it.

In Parramatta Stadium, a 20,000-seat suburban ground a world away from Sydney’s glittering harbour, Hilal are likely to feel a hostile reception from Wanderers supporters, regarded the most vociferous soccer fans in Australia.

The faithful roared throughout a 2-0 home win in the second leg of the semi-final against Seoul.

Tony Popovic, the Wanderers’ coach, said he expected his team’s fans to help push the team to a solid lead before the return leg at Riyadh next week against Hilal, who lost the away leg of their last-four encounter against Al Ain, 2-1.

“All around the world, we’ve seen how important the home crowd can be and how intimidating it can be and you know our fans can match it with the best,” Popovic said.

“They make it a real cauldron there so the opposition feels that they are at an away venue with everything against them, and that’s how it should be.

“We’re hoping for that again.”

Popovic is waiting on the fitness of forward Brendon Santalab, who strained a hamstring in an A-League game against Sydney FC last week, but should have striker Tomi Juric, the team’s leading scorer last season, and defender Matthew Spiranovic available after injury concerns.

Hilal, with Brazilian midfielder Thiago Neves pulling the strings and the pacey Nasser Al Shamrani an attacking spearhead, have the firepower to score in Sydney to set up their bid to join South Korea’s Pohang Steelers with three ACL titles.

The winner of the final will travel to Morocco in December for the Fifa Club World Cup.

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