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Despite scoring the fastest goal in their history, the Western Sydney Wanderers were taught a brutal lesson in Asian football by Ulsan Hyundai at Parramatta Stadium on Wednesday night.
The Wanderers seemed on track for a glorious induction to the Asian Champions League when Brendon Santalab blasted home just 42 seconds after kickoff but the joy proved all too fleeting.
The Korean visitors systematically unpicked the Wanderers’ style and it was impossible not to be impressed. For all the giant strides of Australian club football, Asia’s best has a habit of making our teams look second rate.
While it wasn’t as one sided as the night before – Central Coast being squeezed like a pneumatic pump for 90 minutes in Seoul – the gulf in class was just as evident.
But some context is required. This is the same Ulsan who won the tournament two years ago and were pipped to the K-League title, perhaps Asia’s second-best league, on the final day of last season.
Now the Wanderers’ next match, away to Chinese side Guizhou Renhe, suddenly has a lot more riding on it given the need to win one’s home matches.
Wanderers coach Tony Popovic conceded his side were simply not up the technical level of their cultured opponents and were found wanting at key moments.
“Result-wise it was [a rude awakening] and we learned some harsh lessons,” he said. “I would say the harsh reality is that if you make three mistakes, you get punished at this level. The way we started was excellent, a great combination goal, and their goals came from set plays and a long-ball from their own half. We didn’t deal with that and they took their chances.”
Frustrated at how often his side turned over possession in midfield, Popovic lamented how Ulsan didn’t seem to make such errors.
“The small details are even more important matter the higher [level] you go,” he said. “You have to take your opportunities when you’re on top and you have to cherish that ball better. You keep losing the ball and it makes it different at this level.”
A more bristling assessment of the Wanderers was offered by Ulsan coach Cho Min-Kook, who said his own team surprised him given their “very low fitness” given the K-League season is yet to kick off.
“[Western Sydney] have a good physical ability but they only like to play an aerial game,” he said. “Given the good quality of grass condition, if they played a low, passing game, Australian football would be more competitive.”
Yet there was a great sense of anticipation before kickoff, not least because the Wanderers promised to embrace the tournament as few other Australians clubs have. They made good on their word from kick-off.
They were ahead inside a minute, with the club’s designated Asian player, Shinji Ono, reminding why he once considered the continent’s top talent.
Receiving the ball 30 yards out from goal, Ono improvised magnificently to flick the ball between two defenders into space for Santalab, who let the ball bounce before rifling home a superb volley.
But if that rattled the Koreans early, they didn’t show it. They quickly set about putting their natural game into motion: a passing machine, driven by crisp, smart interchanges, moving forward and then finding space wide.
While Youssouf Hersi might have doubled the Wanderers’ lead had he not blasted over midway through the half, they were soon pegged back when the giant Kim Shin-Wook scored – but not with his head. Left unmarked as the ball sprung in his direction, the giant striker prodded the ball through a cloud of smoke from a nearby flare.
The frustration of conceding was getting to the Wanderers, with Ono picking up a yellow card for launching into a rogue tackle on Kim Young-Sam.
The rain turned from a drizzle into a torrent as the half wore on, seemingly suiting the visitors, whose ball handling was a class apart.
Ko Chang-Hyun put them ahead before half-time with an angled shot that skidded across the crowded the penalty box and beyond Covic.
Ulsan then defended comfortably in the second half and seemed assured they could hold steady. It was no surprise when they added a third on 66 minutes.
Iacopo La Rocca was already enduring a tough night in holding midfield by the time he failed to clear an incoming ball that fell to Kang Min-Soo and the defender blasted home to send the 500-strong travelling fans into raptures. It was no less than they deserved.