Western Sydney Wanderers are into the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League after clinching a dramatic 2-0 comeback against Sanfrecce Hiroshima and progressing on the away goals rule.
Australia’s youngest professional team sent the Japanese champions crashing out of the continental competition with two late goals to stake their claim as one of the eight best teams in Asia this season.
It was not through their usual pressure or discipline that the Wanderers achieved the seemingly impossible, rather with desperation and a rare abandonment of their usual game plan. Through Shannon Cole and Brendon Santalab, the Asian debutants toppled one of the favourites on a dramatic and passionate night.
It was the final match that the Wanderers, as we know them, would play together as Shinji Ono, Youssouf Hersi and Jerome Polenz played in their last game for the club.
Though it didn’t begin so well for the Wanderers who were lucky the contest wasn’t effectively ended just 10 minutes into the match. Striker Naoki Ishihara could’ve made it 4-1 on aggregate in the tie with a one-on-one chance with Ante Covic, forcing the Wanderers’ No.1 into a fine save at his near post.
Western Sydney were tested again when what appeared to be a strong penalty claim was ignored after Gakuto Notsuda was brought down in the box and the same player had yet another chance to find the net with a seemingly easy finish inside the box that was scuffed wide.
Labinot Haliti should’ve done one better immediately after half-time with two attempts in succession from inside the box. He received a cut-back from Ono at the far post but failed to test Takuto in goals as both his tempts were blocked by Hiroshima defenders en route to goal.
But just as it looked as if it was going to be one of those nights, up stepped substitute Shannon Cole. Two minutes after replacing Anthony Golec, the midfielder received yet another clever cut back from Ono deep in the box and avoided making the same mistake as Haliti by aiming high into the roof of the net to make it 1-0 on the night and game on on aggregate.
It was the glimmer of hope the Wanderers needed and it prompted a rare change of formation by coach Tony Popovic as their desperation was replaced by hope.
But the rare gamble paid off. With just six minutes remaining in their season, Brendon Santalab struck perhaps the most important goal of his career. Amid a crowded box and running on to a loose ball, the 31-year-old slid in to strike a volley and through luck, determination and precision, he rattled the corner of the net.
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