April 22, 2014 – 12:00AM
Tony Popovic: “The draw is the draw, and it’s worked out that way for us. We all play the same amount of games away.” Photo: Getty Images
While the Central Coast Mariners are to endure the week from hell in the lead-up to Saturday’s A-League semi-final, their opponents, Western Sydney, are relishing a far more orderly build-up.
Both clubs are competing in the Asian Champions League midweek, with the Wanderers at home to China’s Guizhou Renhe on Tuesday, while the Mariners play in Japan against Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Wednesday.
So punishing is the Mariners’ travel schedule they won’t be able to train between matches, in contrast to the Wanderers, who are coming off a week’s break in the A-League finals, having finished in the top two.
Wanderers coach Tony Popovic admits it is a rare luxury to give his players some down time after a punishing few months.
“Of course it’s helped,” he said after training on Monday. “We’ve had a busy schedule. We’ve played a big game against Melbourne Heart, then flew straight to Korea, then came back and had a few days to recharge the batteries and go again in this competition.”
“The draw is the draw, and it’s worked out that way for us. We all play the same amount of games away.
“Logistically, it’s very difficult [but] it’s turned out that we play at home before a semi-final and we’re pleased about that, but we still have to do a job tomorrow. We still have to recover well for a big semi-final on Saturday.”
The Wanderers need only a point against Guizhou to secure their passage to the round of 16, topping their group after winning three of their past four ACL matches.
Without wanting to undermine the significance of making the knockout stages, Popovic acknowledges domestic duties, which can also guarantee ACL qualification next year, must take priority.
“They’re both important but to stay in this competition, you have to do well in the domestic competitions. That’s the key and this is a very close second,” he said. “We could have one fantastic season in the ACL but not do well in the league and then we won’t be playing in it next year. We want to be a club that is challenging for honours every year, which gives us a chance to stay in the ACL.
“The league is always a priority for me. But this competition, we’ve embraced it, our fans have, our club has, so it’s a close second.”
Wanderers’ defender Daniel Mullen said it wouldn’t be hard to focus on Guizhou, despite a semi-final looming a few days later.
“No, not at all,” he said. “We’re all professionals, the coaching staff have drummed into us that it’s one game at a time. We don’t look past this next game. After the 90 minutes, and what’s done is done, we can look forward to the next game. It’s not that hard.”
Mullen also dispelled any thought the Wanderers were as good as qualified for the round of 16, given the Chinese side’s failed Asian campaign so far.
“Definitely not,” he shot back. “We’ve done well to get into this position where we don’t have to worry about other teams in the group. Everything is in our own hands and we have to go out exactly the same way the first time we played them [winning 1-0 away] and do everything that we can to get a result.”
If the Wanderers finish on top of their group and the Mariners finish second – where both teams are presently positioned – they will be drawn against each other in the knockout stage, an outcome Popovic would love to see.
“It would be great if [it happens]. I hope all three [Australian] sides can get through,” he said. “I think it’s great for the A-League that we can get through to the next round and hopefully that will be the case after Wednesday night. And if it is that we play Central Coast, great. [It means] we’ve both got through to the round of 16 and they will be two great games again.”
If there’s one issue that may be affect both the upcoming matches at Parramatta Stadium it is the quality of the playing surface, which continues to suffer from the wear of hosting rugby league matches.
“It’s ok at best,” Popovic said. “We’ve trained on it, it will be the same for both sides. But we’ve certainly played on better pitches than what is out there at the moment. We know the ground staff will do everything they can to get it up to the best possible standard. But it’s seen better days.”
Source : The Canberra Times