Western Sydney Wanderers defender Tarek Elrich knows all about the merciless scale of Tony Popovic’s Hyundai A-League ambitions.
Elrich, 32, was one of the first players Popovic signed for the Wanderers when he masterminded the club’s Premiers Plate win in their inaugural season.
Almost six years on from that remarkable feat, the former Crystal Palace defender appears set for another first-year fairytale in Perth.
Elrich can smell the similarities ahead of Popovic’s highly anticipated return to Western Sydney on Sunday evening.
“I remember the first camp we had away in the pre-season [in 2012],” Elrich recalled to www.a-league.com.au.
“He brought us all in and pretty much told us if you don’t believe that we’re going to win the league, get out of here.
“From day one he lets you know he’s aiming there and nothing less than that.
“I think that’s showed [with Perth Glory]. I remember one thing he always used to say to us before every game we played that ‘we respect the other team but we don’t fear them.’
“That was the biggest message he used to give us. It was just about going out and enjoying it but knowing that we were better than them.
“I’m sure that’s the same message he’ll be drilling into them.
“He drives that message really well and he’s always got the right people and players around him who follow that message.”
Elrich only made three starts in that famous 2012/13 campaign but he has been anything but a spare part during his second stint back at the under-performing Wanderers.
After re-linking with the Red and Black in May 2018, the Parramatta Eagles junior has started all 19 matches for Markus Babbel’s side and helped marshal a defence which has at times contained up to three teenagers.
It is quite an incredible achievement considering Elrich played just 121 minutes for Adelaide last season as he recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament rupture suffered in April 2017.
“I came into a pre-season here under a new coach, new system, new everything and not having much football under my belt in the last year I didn’t expect to be playing as much football as I did,” Elrich said.
“Especially in that period in December and January when we were playing those games back to back. Markus [Babbel] said, ‘I’d love to give you a rest but I can’t.’
“But I think we’ve been unlucky in terms of results. The performances were there it was just that lapse in the last five or 10 minutes.
"In the last two games I feel the whole team’s been working extra hard for each other in defence.”
Having clinched back to back victories over Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United, the Wanderers are primed for three consecutive league wins, a streak not achieved since April 2017.
And Elrich would love nothing more than to spoil Popovic’s homecoming with a defeat that could potentially blow the Premiership race wide open again.
“There’s other teams out there who are relying on us to do a job," Elrich said.
“We’ve now got a taste of that winning feeling and continued it and we want to salvage some pride if we can because it’s been a tough year.
“If we can stay compact and stay structured in defence we can beat anyone.”