Wanderers come up short at home in the ACL

By Corinthian (Paul Green):

Tuesday 3rd March 2015 – Parramatta Stadium

WESTERN SYDNEY WANDERERS FC 2 (Iacopo La Rocca 56′, Romeo Castelen 90’+5)
lost to
GUANGZHOU EVERGRANDE FC 3 (Ricardo Goulart Pereira 19′, 58′, 64′)

Once again the Wanderers came up short at their own Parramatta Stadium, this time in their opening home AFC Champions League game against big-guns Guangzhou Evergrande.

Having won only one A League match all season and not even at Parramatta, but at Penrith, while the major part of their regular stadium’s renovations were being carried out, Wanderers came into the game, having won their first Champions League game of the new campaign in Japan against Kashima Antlers a week earlier and having put up a fighting show against cross-town rivals Sydney FC the previous weekend.

But the weight of expectation again proved too much and despite many changes being made by head coach, the AFC-suspended Tony Popovic, to freshen his team, following their midweek exertions, they could not cope with the superior skill and movement of their wealthy Chinese opponents.

There had been some animosity, to put it mildly, the last time the teams met at the same venue, with the two teams being drawn in the same group again, thus ensuring some friction would be inevitable.

Even though the Chinese club had brought in a new Italian coach, Fabio Cannavaro, to replace the august Marcello Lippi, who’d been at the centre of much of the trouble the previous season, some of the club’s other erstwhile officials were sitting in the stand, where they had been banished to throughout the game.

So too, was Wanderers’ coach, Popovic, who had been suspended after the Champions League Final in 2014 and had to leave the team in the charge of his assistant, Ian Crook for this match and the previous one in Japan.

Popovic was afforded the relative security of a glassed-in booth from which to watch the game and make notes, but some of the technical people from the Chinese club were anxiously sitting among the crowd, sandwiched between supporters of both sides.

There was an element of revenge about the game, though that was not openly admitted to by either club.

It was clear that the crowd was disturbed by this aspect, as much, if not more, than the players or the officials, as they booed many times during the match, often merely when a ball was won or a free-kick awarded, but most notably when a player went down injured, especially when the Guangzhou team was in front.

They were in front first, scoring the opening goal in the 19th minute through Brazilian Ricardo Goulart Pereira, 23, who went on to net a hat-trick in an impressive display of sound finishing.’

He was aided by fellow-Brazilian, Elkeson De Oliveira Cardoso, 25, who had a hand in the lead-up to all three of the visitors’ goals, along with local Chinese star, Gao Lin.

Wanderers were not going to take things lying down, however, even if they had been stung by the early goal against them and showed their attacking prowess by having as much of the game, going forward, as they might have hoped for.

Unfortunately it was in defence, yet again, where they were found wanting.

Those deficiencies had been exposed against Sydney FC in the weekend’s 3-2 A League loss, when conceding three goals inside the first 24 minutes and they were exposed again here.

It was heartening for the Wanderers’ fans who backed their team vocally for the whole game against Sydney, giving them the strength to come from three goals down to draw 3-3, before conceding a fourth, but here they at least did enough to help the team draw level much earlier than that.

It was 1-0 at the break to Guangzhou Evergrande, but with a half-time break behind them and the mantle of Champions giving them the confidence to regain some ascendancy, The Wanderers were able to equalise in the 56th minute.

From one of a number of set-pieces they’d earned they scored what has to be said was a quality goal.

It came from defender, Iacopo La Rocca, who met Nikita Rukavytsya’s corner at the near-post with a fine header, getting the ball to fly in past a flat-footed goalkeeper and his attending defenders.

It had not been the first chance of the game for the home side, but nothing had come from a string of corners won by the Wanderers before the break, despite excellent delivery from Rukavytsya in most cases.

Having restored parity, however, the team fell down on the job again, by conceding again very quickly.

They must have been mentally celebrating their good fortune, that at last they’d put away a chance from a corner, but immediately neglected to focus fully enough on their shape and defensive discipline.

They were punished in the 58th by the clever movement through a Wanderers’ defence, caught square, allowing Goulart to net again, gleefully, nearly breaking the hearts of the solid home crowd.

It wasn’t as solid as it had been against Sydney FC, numbers-wise, as AFC regulations meant that at least half the seats had to be made available to those who wanted them outside the club’s won supporters and guaranteed membership seats were not to be had for this game.

Wanderers’ fans had to buy their tickets specifically for this match or others in the Group stage and did so in fair numbers; but with a sea of red shirts belonging to the Chinese fans, who numbered almost 5,000, it was a far cry from the earlier A League match when Sydney FC fans’ allocation was barely a quarter of that and who were out-sung and out-shouted by most of the others in the stadium.

The Wanderers’ fans did continue to support their team here with massive vocal efforts, but when Evergrande goalkeeper, Zeng Cheng, clashed with his own defender, going up to try and collect a ball from a Rukavytsya free-kick, in the 68th minute, there was little sympathy for the custodian’s plight from many in the crowd.

Partly that may have been because Wanderers’ captain, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, had nodded the ball into the net, only for the goal to be ruled out for an infringement.

The goalkeeper eventually had to be replaced and was surrounded for most of his hapless time on the ground, by anxious team-mates as much as by medical attendants, causing the crowd to feel it might have been an attempt at gamesmanship, as there was no sign of the player being stretchered off.

The delay lengthened to 16 minutes and when replacement keeper, Li Shuai, finally went on and the correct stretcher had taken the stricken keeper off, the concentration levels of both sides were clearly tested.

Guangzhou had already gone 3-1 up, after another defensive lapse had allowed Goulart to seize possession and steer the ball past Ante Covic in the 64th.

After the Malaysian referee signalled for 17 minutes of stoppage-time, the game, which eventually ran for another two minutes on top of that, saw Wanderers’ substitute, Romeo Castelen, score with a fine near-post header five minutes into the time added on and again following a Rukavytsya cross from the right.

Castelen looked very menacing, after coming on to replace Labinot Haliti soon after the hour mark, having returned from a long-term injury only at the weekend.

Guangzhou maintained their composure to resist the last ditch efforts of the Wanderers to level a second time, with the crowd getting right behind the home team with some rousing decibels.

In the final analysis, though, Wanderers came up short at home again, albeit on the Asian stage.

Assistant-coach, Ian Crook, standing in for Popovic at the post-match press conference, was philosophical about the outcome.

“They’re the best team in what is a very tough group and they are probably the favourites to win the thing,” he said.

“We made mistakes in defence again, which has been our problem for a while and which we’ve been working on to overcome in training and we just need to keep doing that and step it up.

The Guangzhou Evergrande coach, Fabio Cannavaro, held in awe by most of the media and who appeared first to face the media, was only able to talk through an interpreter, who mostly mumbled the answers on the game.

Crook had described the Brazilian, Elkeson, as the best player on the pitch, rather than the hat-trick hero, but Cannavaro was not going to be too specific about individual players.

Especially when most of the media wanted to quiz him on his coaching future and whether this appointment was a mere stepping stone to greater glory, perhaps even the Italian national team, or a Serie A club.

He’d cut his coaching teeth in Dubai before taking over from Lippi and seemed at ease in the role at the ambitious Chinese club.

When the time came to answer the queries about his coaching future he managed to find the words in English to spare his translator any further stress.

The Wanderers will hope to face less brilliant opponents in their remaining two Asian Champions League home games, in order to get that first home win at Parramatta Stadium under their belts, as much as anything else.

That’s assuming they don’t manage it over the next seven days, when they face a Wednesday catch-up game at the stadium against Melbourne City FC and a scheduled Friday night game against Melbourne Victory.

The two Victorian teams will be keen to further dent the pride of the reigning Asian Cup Champions.

Match details

Crowd: 11,418

Western Sydney Wanderers FC: 1.Ante COVIC (GK); 3 Yusuke TANAKA, 13 Matthew SPIRANOVIC, 4 Nikolai TOPOR-STANLEY (C), 5 Brendan HAMILL (25 Sam GALLOWAY 18); 18.Iacopo LA ROCCA; 33 Nick KALMAR (14 Kerem BULUT 88),  10 Yojiro TAKAHAGI 7. Labinot HALITI (Romeo CASTELAN 62), 9 Tomi JURIC,  12 Nikita RUKAVYTSYA

Subs Not Used: RGK 20.Dean BOUZANIS, 23.Jason TRIFIRO, 19.Mark BRIDGE, 35 Kearyn BACCUS

Red cards: Nil, Yellow cards: Tomi Juric 27

Guangzhou Evergrande:  GK 19 ZENG Cheng (22 LI Shuai 82); 3 MEI Fang, 6 FENG Xiaoting, 21 ZHAO Zheng, 28 KIM Young Gwon (4 ZHANG Jia Qi 84); 16 HUANG Bowen (17 LI Jian 68), 10 ZHENG Zhi (C), 25 ZOU Zheng; 9 Elkeson De Oliveira CARDOSO, 29 GAO Lin, 11 Goulart PEREIRA

Subs Not Used:  2 LIAO Lisheng, 20 YU Hanchao, 27 ZHENG Long, 33 RONG Hao

Red cards: Nil, Yellow cards: Zhou Zheng 38, Zhao Xuri 90 +13

Ratings and points

Player points:
3 Goulart Pereira (GE)
2 Elkeson De Oliveira Cardoso (GE)
1 Gao Lin  (GE)

Match 8/10
Pitch 6/10

Referee: Noor Mohamed (Malaysia)  4/10
Assistants: Azman Ismail (Malaysia) and Cheng Oi Cho (Hong Kong)
Fourth Official: Suhaizi Shukri (Malaysia)