Western Sydney Wanderers on Wednesday began the defence of their Asian Champions League title in emphatic style, completing a 3-1 smash and grab mission over Kashima Antlers in Japan.
Currently in the middle of a disastrous A-League season with just one win from 16 matches and sitting in last place on the table, the Wanderers dismissed their domestic woes to humble the most successful team in J-League history.
Serving a two-match ACL touchline suspension from the stands, Wanderers coach Tony Popovic made several changes from the team that lost 2-1 to Adelaide on Saturday and for once his makeshift side combined to bring home the spoils.
Midfielder Mark Bridge returned to his best form, scoring a goal and playing a part in the other two, an own goal scored by Kashima’s Gen Shoji and a close range effort by Japanese import Yojiro Takahagi.
Striker Tomi Juric, who has endured a wretched club season, showed improvement and glimpses of his true potential, while reserve goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis kept the Japanese wolves at bay in just his second Wanderers appearance.
The visitors took the lead in the 54th minute when a Bridge volley was turned into the net by defender Shoji. However, Kashima regained their composure and in the 68th minute scored the equaliser through a fine volley by Shoma Doi.
With just four minutes left on the clock, a draw seemed to be the most likely outcome before Bridge and Takahagi combined nicely to give the Wanderers a shock 2-1 lead. Bridge completed the rout in injury time with one of his specials for an unlikely 3-1 victory.
The Wanderers must now recover in time for Saturday’s keenly awaited derby against archrivals Sydney FC at Parramatta Stadium and following that, a brutal schedule of two-matches-a-week over the next month. By the time the red and blacks visit Perth Glory on March 28, they will have played 10 matches in five weeks, a combination of A-League and champions’ league fixtures.
But for now, the men from Sydney’s west can briefly enjoy a successful mission to Japan before facing FC in front of 20,000 adoring fans. Success in the A-League may be a pipedream, but defending their continental crown just became the club’s Holy Grail.