The Western Sydney Wanderers won more admirers worldwide in a very commendable performance during a game which bordered on the farcical.
It signalled an end to the Red & Black’s incredible journey that has seen them go from non-existent to one of the top six clubs in the world in less than three years.
From the start even the commentator seemed to be against the Wanderers, or as he called them, the Western Australia Warriors, and in conditions that more closely resembled the Parramatta Swimming Centre than a football pitch Cruz Azul started the stronger.
It didn’t take long for Western Sydney to gain a foothold in the match though and it was the Champions of Asia who had the first opportunity of the game as Nikita Rukavytsya shot into the side-netting shortly followed by Spiranovic heading an opportunity straight to the keeper.
As the conditions deteriorated close to unfit for football the Red & Black become more dominant and should have been ahead as Labinot Haliti side volleyed a knockdown from Nikolai Topor-Stanley into the back of the net.
Players wheeled off in celebration though it was short-lived as the referee blew his whistle for a foul which simply didn’t exist.
It was a cruel blow in what should have been a deserved lead into half time.
The second half began just as the first ended with the dominant Wanderers cruelly denied an opener.
Chasing possession, Rukavytsya was crudely tackled rugby-style in the penalty area with the referee waving play-on.
It was to be a double blow as Cruz Azul instantly went on the counter-attack.
With the Blue Cross attacker brought down outside the box by Seyi Adeleke the referee unforgivingly awarded a yellow card to Topor-Stanley in a case of mistaken identity. Having waved the card generically in both players’ direction he failed to make it clear to the players who he had awarded the card to.
That was quickly forgotten though as Iacopo La Rocca scored a goal to remember to give the Red & Black the lead!
Hitting the ball first time from well outside the box, the shot skidded across the
lake turf and into the bottom corner of the goal.
With a lead to hold and in control things looked good for the Champions of Asia until a rare Cruz Azul attack saw Matthew Spiranovic awarded his second yellow card for a deliberate handball.
Playing a man down did not seem to faze the Red & Black though as they held tight and looked to be well on their way to a dream meeting with Real Madrid.
That dream was about to be crushed though as in the 89th minute Cruz Azul was awarded a penalty after Shannon Cole had attempted to win the ball from an attacker.
It was unfortunate for Cole as the only reason he made contact was due to the ball getting caught in a puddle on the pitch – affecting the timing.
Regardless, it was undoubtedly a foul but the bemusement from the Wanderers players was understandable considering the referee had waved away the rugby tackle on Rukavytsya earlier that half. Consistency was not the order of the day.
1-1 and on to extra time.
The job soon became a lot harder as the Red & Black were reduced to nine men after Topor-Stanley had brought down a Cruz Azul player at half way.
Unaware he had been booked prior, the Captain made a strategic challenge and was punished in the harshest way as the referee produced a red card for a second bookable offence.
Despite protests from both Topor-Stanley and coach Tony Popovic claiming it was only his first card, the centre back was forced to walk.
The challenge of facing the Champions of CONCACAF with two men down proved to be too much despite the brave effort of the players.
The Blue Cross went ahead after knocking in a rebound from an initial save by Covic and wrapped the match up after being awarded another penalty in the dying minutes.
It was a sour way to finish what had been an amazing performance by the Western Sydney Wanderers; doing their best to defy the odds and all the obstacles in their path.
While players, staff, fans and casual onlookers alike will feel many moments were unacceptable in the world’s biggest Club tournament, this period of the Wanderers history will be fondly looked back upon as a proud moment for both Australia and the Western Sydney region.
Up next for the Champions of Asia is the 5th place play-off against African Champions ES Setif on Thursday morning.