Rewind to Round 2 of this season and a 1-1 draw against Adelaide United meant the Wanderers would enter the third week of the competition with only a single point. Fast forward 11 weeks, the Wanderers are now favourite for the Premier’s Plate.
It’s often said that things change quickly in football but not even the most ardent Wanderers tragic could have dreamt of the transformation that now sees Tony Popovic’s men sit at the summit of the Hyundai A-League table.
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How things change. To many, the new campaign represented more of a mass rebuilding phase than a serious title assault for the Wanderers but after twelve rounds the mood around Wanderland is as vibrant and as fiercely unconquerable as it has ever been.
Tonight’s match against Adelaide United at Pirtek Stadium should be held as a marker of just how far the revitalised Wanderers have come in the space of a year: from a humiliating 2-0 defeat at Coopers Stadium last December, to the 1-1 draw in Round 2 this season.
Although the Wanderers had won the AFC Champions League a month prior to that Round 9 encounter in the 2014/15 season, the immediate future looked bleak and painful. The side had not won any of their opening eight fixtures and had seemingly been worked out by the domestic opposition.
Teams were gleefully lining up to exact revenge on the young upstart that had written itself into Australian footballing folklore in barely three years.
Smelling blood in the water after Nikolai ToporStanley’s early sending off, Adelaide gave an already undermanned, battered and bruised Wanderers squad an almighty kicking. Such was Josep Gombau’s side’s dominance that they held a nearly unfathomable 80% possession and dominated the shot count 26-1.
Looking back, this might have been a defeat that acknowledged certain shortcomings and sparked an early search for something fresh at Western Sydney. It’s almost as if Popovic viewed Gombau’s Adelaide with their sleek and distinctly Spanish controlled possession game not just as a blueprint for Hyundai A-League success, but as a stylistic and structural avenue his team could pursue in the near future.
It now seems that the Wanderers custodian has melded together the best of both worlds with his current squad, combining the inventive attacking football from the Spaniard’s scrapbook with the rock-solid foundations of his own pragmatic, continental-trophy-winning philosophy.
The net effect has Popovic’s men reaching for the stars again midway through the club’s fourth season of existence.
When the Wanderers host the Reds tonight, the respective identities of each club will have changed dramatically from their last meeting in Round 2, and deviated even further from campaigns past.
During his stint down under Gombau navigated his former side up the standings and in doing so transformed the Reds into the league’s poster boys for sexy football but the arrival of successor and countryman Guillermo Amor has seen Adelaide lose some of their sheen as the new custodian adjusts to the demands of a new league – in his first managerial role no less.
At the same time, the mantle of the league’s entertainers has been adopted by Popovic’s Wanderers. It’s a role the team have worked hard for and are now relishing.
It’s especially symbolic that Dimas will front the Adelaide ranks tonight – a player who would have fit the Gombau prototype neatly. The Spaniard is cut from the same cloth of player that spelt out the gulf in class, style and standing in Adelaide’s triumph last season and along with fellow Catalan Andreu, has embodied the Wanderers’ revolution.
The midfielder played under Pep Guardiola in 2007, and it only took a few cultured touches against Palm Beach Sharks to confirm that the rangy midfielder had all the natural tools to successfully modify the mechanics of the Wanderers’ midfield into something reminiscent of a Guardiola team.
With an outstanding passing range and tigerish aptitude off the ball, Popovic’s silent general captures both the Wanderers old and new: one minute gliding gracefully through the midfield conducting the movements of the fleet-footed attackers in front of him before vigilantly snapping and snarling at the heels of the opposition with terrier-like aggression.
The Spaniard is both the assistant orchestrator to Andreu and the chief watchdog of the Wanderers’ midfield and has already made himself into one of the most invaluable cogs in Popovic’s new machine.
It would be fitting that Dimas – a player whom both Gombau’s and Amor’s Adelaide would have snapped up in a heartbeat – and his Wanderers side overcome the Reds tonight. It would confirm that old labels have been swapped and that new eras are in full swing at both clubs.