Western Sydney Wanderers’ hopes of progressing past the group stage of the Asian Champions League have been all but dashed after slumping to a lacklustre defeat at home to FC Seoul.
The 2014 Asian Champions need a near miracle to reach the knockout stages of this year’s tournament after a 3-2 loss to the Korean giants at Campbelltown Stadium left the Wanderers anchored at the bottom of Group F. Their disappointing campaign appears to have come to an end after their second hefty home defeat of the season requires them to now win their final two games and pray other results go in their favour to finish in the top two.
Despite being outclassed for the majority of the match, a late fightback gave Western Sydney some hope of pulling off the incredible after clawing back from 3-0 down. However late goals from Terry Antonis and Lachlan Scott provided more respect to the scoreline than the balance of play.
However, Western Sydney coach Tony Popovic is pulling the positives from an underwhelming campaign, viewing it as a vehicle that has fast-tracked the development of his youngest talent.
“It’ll be difficult [to progress to the knock-out stages],” a disappointed Popovic conceded.
“We’re in a group as well where there have been no draws so no one’s dropping any points.
“You have a look at the other groups – the leaders might be on four, five or six points.
“As a whole, in terms of results, disappointing.”
The quality of Asian football is no doubt improving, but Popovic also pointed to his squad’s relative youth compared with glossier prior campaigns highlighted by 2014’s historic triumph.
He said young players lacking in extensive match conditioning will benefit from their first real experience of short turnarounds and long-haul travel between Asian and A-League commitments.
In particular, he singled out two of the club’s rising stars in 20-year-old first-choice centre-back Jonathan Aspropotamitis and burgeoning 19-year-old striker Scott.
Scott scored his second Champions League goal – and the third of his senior career – in injury time, adding to Antonis’ 77th-minute strike to bring his team to the brink of a three-goal comeback.
“It’s clearly accelerating them,” Popovic said.
“Lachy fought hard – the kid was cramping in the last 10 minutes and he scored a wonderful goal, a fantastic striker’s goal.
“Jonathan was, I thought, very good.
“It’s hard, you’re speaking highly of your defenders and yet you concede three goals, but it was pretty much three attempts on goal and they scored three.
“So if you look at it as a whole they defended well.”
The Wanderers were outplayed in almost every measure aside from possession in a loss that would sting Popovic, who highlighted the importance of this fixture with the selections on his team sheet. Just three changes made from the side that drew with Melbourne Victory three days earlier displayed their desire for consistency despite the availability of fresh and fit players and that search for stability was dealt a blow after only four minutes.
They were left shell-shocked when Lee Seok-hyun fired a rocket from some 25 metres, leaving goalkeeper Vedran Janjetovic helpless but to watch the fierce drive rattle the back of the net.
The Wanderers should have drawn level midway through the first half when Jumpei Kusukami received the most fortunate of gifts from Seoul’s defence. A back pass fell straight to the Japanese winger’s feet inside the box. He was already through on goal, had the chance to hone in on goal and finish simply, yet in a baffling decision, opted to cut back to the edge of the area for Mitch Nichols in support. His shot was fired well over the bar and the groan in agony from the stands was an apt reflection of Kusukami’s decision making.
They were made to rue that minutes before the break when Scott Neville brought down Maurinho inside the box and Montenegran striker Dejan Damjanovic ensured Seoul went into half-time with a comfortable lead, slotting the resulting spot kick.
There was little life injected into the Wanderers after their break as their grip on possession still didn’t lead to any chances. Seoul continued to look dangerous and Damjanovic came close to firing the final nail in the coffin with a powerful free-kick that forced a fine save from Janjetovic.
Popovic injected Marquee Nico Martinez and captain Dimas Delgado after the hour mark but no sooner had they arrived than the Wanderers’ hopes of progressing disappeared. Damjanovic sealed the emphatic win for the Koreans in style, beating two players to fire a long-range strike to make it 3-0 in the 70th minute.
In other Australian results, Adelaide United upset Jeju United 3-1 in Korea to climb from last to second in Group H.
Brisbane, last in Group E, host Kashima Antlers on Wednesday night.