Two-time A-League finalists Western Sydney Wanderers will be keen to secure the newly-remodelled ‘toilet seat’ for the first time in their history heading into their sixth season in Australia’s top-flight.
Tony Popovic’s men have managed to claim the A-League premiership as well as a historic Asian Champions League title since their establishment in 2012 and will be hoping that, following a winter of wholesale changes, the club will finally be crowned as nation’s best.
2016-17 finishing position: 6th
Coach: Tony Popovic
INS AND OUTS
Ins : Josh Risdon, Roly Bonevacia, Michael Thwaite, John Hall, Oriol Riera, Marc Tokich, Chris Herd, Mark Bridge, Alvaro Cejudo, Raul Llorente
Outs : Mario Shabow, Scott Neville, Shannon Cole, Mitch Nichols, Dimas, Nicolas Martinez, Bruno Piñatares, Terry Antonis, Liam Youlley, Emilio Martinez, Stefan Zinni, Ryan Griffiths, Jackson Bandiera, Aritz Borda
STAR PLAYER – Oriol Riera
Mark Bridge couldn’t do it. Tomi Juric couldn’t do it, and Joey Gibbs couldn’t do it. Nor could Ryan Griffiths or Labinot Haliti. Dino Kresinger and Federico Piovacarri couldn’t do it either. Kerem Bulut came for the ride and failed too. Even Brendan Santalab couldn’t do it. But there’s a feeling that, with Oriol Riera in their side, the Wanderers can finally do it.
Do what? Win that A-League championship the club have so desperately craved, of course.
Western Sydney fans, in the past, have become wary of overseas strikers. The aforementioned Italian, for instance, scored two goals in 12 games before falling out with Popovic, never to be seen again. Riera will have been retold that horror story, and many more too, and is aware that the pressure will be on him to perform.
But so far, none of that has gotten to him. In fact, the former Barcelona graduate has settled into the club well, in some style too, rising high to head home a 120th minute winner in their FFA Cup last-16 clash with Wellington Pheonix before scoring a brace and the winning spot-kick to help the Red and Blacks’ to a quarter-final win over Blacktown City.
“He showed an amazing work rate. You can see the team is trying to get to know him and he is trying to get to know the players,” Popovic said.
And while he is an experienced striker who has also scored against Real Madrid, for what it’s worth, the question remains whether the 31-year-old can perform at the highest level on a regular basis.
Early season form suggests that he can, and fans and coaching staff alike will certainly be hoping they can finally break their championship duck with him leading the line.
BREAKOUT PLAYER – Marc Tokich
Western Sydney Wanderer’s youngest recruit Marc Tokich has made it no secret that he harbours hopes of a move to the English Premier League one day.
For now, though, he’ll have to knuckle down and fight for a regular starting berth in the A-League as he looks to make his European dream a reality.
The 18-year-old has been touted as one of Australia’s brightest talents since joining the FFA’s Centre of Excellence and recently earned himself a trial in Germany after he was named as the National Youth League’s Player of the Year earlier last campaign.
Tokich, known for his excellent technical ability, is considered as a ‘delayed developer’, but the Australian under-17s international has the ability to set the league alight if given a chance to star this season.
Following a largely underwhelming season, by Wanderers standards anyway, where the Red and Blacks finished in sixth-place and where eliminated in the first round of the final series, Popovic has recruited well over the off-season and the side now look like genuine title contenders.
Whilst the 44-year-old boss has adopted a more possession-based philosophy of late, their fast-paced movement of the ball in attack in will suit the skill-sets of a potential front-three of Riera, Cejudo and Bonevacia.
Meanwhile, the club have a plethora of alternative options up front with the likes of Jumpei Kusukami, Mark Bridge and Brendan Santalab all vying for a regular starting XI spot.
The signings of Michael Thwaite, Josh Risdon and Raul Llorente will undoubtedly shore up a side that only conceded 35 goals during the previous regular season.
Western Sydney’s downfall last season can largely be attributed to their inconsistent performances for much of the season, so much so, in fact, that the club failed to string together successive victories until round 24 where they followed up a 3-1 win over Wellington Phoenix in the previous round with a victory by the same scoreline against Melbourne City.
The club’s away form was of particular concern last term with Popovic’s men claiming just four victories from 13 matches away from home.
They will need to vastly improve their form away from home if they are to challenge the likes of Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory for top spot.
FINAL PREDICTION – 3RD
On face value, Popovic has assembled a squad capable of challenging for silverware this season with a number of experienced foreigners and local heroes joining their ranks.
There’s a certain aura, and belief too, amongst Wanderers’ vocal supporters that this could be the season they go all the way.
The players will have to start believing so too – after all, considering all that they’ve previously been through, they have little reason to doubt that they can finally get their hands on elusive champions plate.
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