Saudis vowing to fight to death in Asian Champions final

Al-Hilal’s Salem Aldawsari is challenged by Western Sydney’s Nikola Topor-Stanley and Mateo Poljak in the first leg of the AFC Champions League final in Sydney last week.
Al-Hilal’s Salem Aldawsari is challenged by Western Sydney’s Nikola Topor-Stanley and Mateo Poljak in the first leg of the AFC Champions League final in Sydney last week.

WELCOME to blue hell.

That was the message that greeted Wanderers coach Tony Popovic and his players when they arrived in Riyadh this week to prepare for tomorrow morning's do-or-die battle against Al-Hilal in the second leg of the Asian Champions League grand final.

And do-or-die is exactly what the Saudi players have promised as they try to turn around a 1-0 deficit from the first leg in Sydney last weekend.

Al-Hilal captain and striker Yasser Al Qahtani, who missed that game through suspension, typified the attitude of the home side.

"We lost the first game, but I think we will win the trophy in the second game," the 32-year-old said.

"Playing in this game is like a dream. Everybody wants to play in this type of final.

"I will run until I die."

Not only will Western Sydney have to overcome the desperate Al-Hilal players, they will also face a hostile crowd of up to 68,000 fans at King Fahd International Stadium in the Saudi capital.

But playing in hostile environments will be nothing new to the Wanderers who have overcome that situation several times throughout Asia in their 13-game journey to the second leg of the grand final.

Fewer than 20 Western Sydney fans are expected to be in the stands to support their team, due largely to complex visa procedures, but forward Kwabena Appiah said the players were still getting plenty of long-distance support from their own passionate followers.

"We can still hear your support all the way from here, so keep sending us your positive tweets and positive messages via social media, because we're bringing this home," Appiah said.

An away goal may be needed to achieve the ultimate success, although a repeat of the recent goalkeeping heroics by Ante Covic would be enough to get the job done.

The 39-year-old has kept six clean sheets in his past eight Asian Champions League matches. Covic has been quick to play down his own contribution, deflecting praise onto his defenders who have forced opposition teams into taking shots from outside effective range.

At the other end, Popovic faces the dilemma of whether to start last weekend's goal-scoring hero, Tomi Juric, who caused the Al-Hilal defence plenty of headaches after coming on in the 59th minute and finding the net just five minutes later.

While Al-Hilal will start short-priced favourites to win the game, and potentially overcome the 1-0 deficit to lift the trophy for the third time, no one would be more deserving of victory than the Wanderers coach.

Popovic was handed control of a club with no name, no colours and no players when the club was born in 2012.

In less than three years he has moulded a team into not only one of the best in the A-League, but in another 90 minutes, just maybe the best in Asia.

And that would be pure heaven.



King Fahd International Stadium, tomorrow, 3.30am (AEST)

Topics:  asian champions league football tony popovic western sydney wanderers

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