By Derek Royal
Brendon Santalabís recent goal-scoring exploits have seen him emerge as an unlikely hero for struggling Asian club champions Western Sydney Wanderers. Sidelined since October due to shoulder surgery, the 32-year-old journeyman has made the most of his return, scoring two goals in as many A-League games off the bench, an unexpected bonus for Wanderers fans still shell-shocked by their sideís spectacular demise.
Santalab put away a simple tap-in to seal a 2-0 victory over Wellington Phoenix, and a week later, chipped home a penalty in a one-all draw at Newcastle. Heíll be hoping to continue his momentum when the Wanderers visit Adelaide United on Saturday.
Santalab possesses skill but is widely regarded as a reliable team man who always gives 100 per cent, traits that have endeared him to the Wanderers faithful. Nevertheless, his ability to score goals on his return to the Wanderersí first team has been a welcome bonus for a side desperate to avoid the wooden spoon.
To be frank, the Wanderersí 2014-15 A-League season has been a disaster and nothing illustrates this more than the clubís dismal record in front of goal. With just 11 goals from 15 games, itís little wonder the former premiers, two-time grand finalists and reigning Asian club champions find themselves wallowing at the bottom of the table. Hence the value that Santalab brings to the team, even as a bench player.
For all that has been written and broadcast about young gun Tomi Juric, the talented number 9 who helped Australia to Asian Cup glory has gone missing for his club since he scored the winner against Al Hilal in the first leg of the Asian Championsí League final four months ago. Since then, the young man has scored a miserly two goals for his club and has failed to play with any intelligence off the ball.
Granted, injuries (including several weeks on the sidelines); the mass departure of key players such as Shinji Ono, Aaron Mooy, and Youssouf Hersi; plus coach Tony Popovicís initial insistence to use Juric as an impact player off the bench, have contributed to the strikerís inconsistency. But itís not just Juricís inability to score goals that is beginning to frustrate Wanderers fans as evidenced by the amount of cat calls aimed in his direction against the Phoenix at Penrith; itís also his lethargy off the ball and questionable work ethic.
Nikita Rukavytsya falls into a similar space to Juric: relatively young at 27, with tons of potential, apart from his superb strike against the Phoenix two weeks ago, he too has failed to convert opportunities into goals. But unlike Juric, Rukavytsya, who was signed from German club Mainz last October, isnít afraid to roll up his sleeves to do some dirty work. Again, a trait admired by fans.
Thereís no doubt that Tomi Juric has enormous potential, weíve seen glimpses of it, especially his glorious winning strike in the Championsí league final, and the match-winning assist in Australiaís pulsating extra time victory over South Korea in the final of the Asian Cup. So too does Nikita Rukavytsya have potential, even at 27. But while their potential remains concealed, it looks like itís up to the evergreen Santalab to inspire his young teammates and to continue on his merry way, even if itís only in 10 to 15 minute spurts off the bench.