Western Sydney prepare for AFC clash
Rarely has a fixture featured such a contrast in opponents. Only a week after bombing out of the inaugural FFA Cup 1-0 to semiprofessional minnow Adelaide City, the Western Sydney Wanderers now have to face Asian heavyweight Guangzhou Evergrande.
Here are three talking points for the Wanderers ahead of their AFC Champions League quarterfinal in Sydney on Wednesday:
1. The almighty dollar
It's almost impossible to analyse Guangzhou Evergrande without talking about money. Since being purchased by the Evergrande Real Estate Group in 2010, tens of millions of dollars have been spent turning the Chinese club from a second-tier basket case into a veritable global powerhouse.
Led by World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, the squad features arguably the finest talent on offer in Asia -- with a host of Chinese internationals augmented by world-class foreign talent in the shape of Alessandro Diamanti, Kim Young-gwon, Elkeson and new recruit Alberto Gilardino.
Importantly, the Tigers' recruitment policy has centred on purchasing players of exceptional skill and quality -- former players Dario Conca and Lucas Barrios come to mind -- that fit into Lippi's football philosophy rather than shoehorning aging marquee stars into the lineup like the failed Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka experiment at rival Shanghai Shenhua (now Shanghai Greenland Shenhua).
Reigning champion of both China and Asia, their spending power -- best exemplified by the fact that Lippi's salary alone (believed to be around $14 million a year) is nearly six times larger than the entire Wanderers squad -- means that Guangzhou are an overwhelming favourite to not only steamroll the quarterfinal but to go on to win the entire competition.
2. Lack of competitive football
One of the major concerns in Australian football is the short A-League season. With the season kicking off in mid-October and finishing in early May, players who can't secure loan deals go nearly five months without playing any competitive top-tier football.
This means that the Wanderers have played just a single competitive game since their Asian Champions League round of 16 win against Sanfrecce Hiroshima on May 14 -- and that was last week's aforementioned FFA Cup shock defeat to part-timers Adelaide City.
Compare this to Guangzhou, which are 22 games deep into their Chinese Super League season. Not only have they been able to build momentum through a series of wins (the Tigers sit seven points clear at the top of the league), but their key signings -- Diamanti and Gilardino -- are starting to flourish, having now gotten used to their new surroundings.
3. Popovic in demand
The one major positive in the Wanderers corner is manager Tony Popovic.
The former Socceroo's tenure in charge of WSW has been nothing short of impressive. Having built the team from scratch, he has steered the club to two Grand Finals and a Premier's Plate in just two seasons of existence -- plus the Wanderers' excellent run in the Asian Champions League, which has brought them to this quarterfinal.
Such achievements have seen "Poppa" linked with the manager's job at English Premier League side Crystal Palace, after Tony Pulis sensationally resigned last week. It would represent somewhat of a fairy-tale return for the young manager, who has both played for and captained the Eagles and returned to be the assistant manager to Dougie Freedman for the 2011-12 season.
Popovic, however, has refused to comment on any of the speculation and instead is focused on the Guangzhou match. Speaking to the AFC in the buildup to the first leg, he underlined the importance of coming away from Wednesday's game with an advantage: "Your home games are vitally important, as proven in the ACL for us, whether it is the first leg at home or the second. We had the second leg at our stadium against Sanfrecce, and we finished them off.
"It is a different scenario now, though, and we have to try and be positive and take a lead to China; that's our aim. It will be a difficult challenge, but it is one we are looking forward to."
If anyone is going to get the Western Sydney Wanderers up for this monumental challenge, Tony Popovic is the man.