Western Sydney Wanderers FC face another test of their mettle - not to mention their fitness - with a crucial away clash against FC Seoul in the AFC Champions League on Wednesday night.
Live Blog ACL | FC Seoul v Western Sydney Wanderers
Both sides have had a win and loss in their first two group matches to equal on three points in Group H, with Wanderers ahead of the Koreans in second spot on goal difference.
It makes this encounter extremely vital – even at this early stage - for progression to the knockout phase alongside group favourites Guangzhou Evergrande.
The Wanderers have endured a horror recent schedule, playing seven matches in just 20 days prior to their trip to the Seoul World Cup Stadium.
Tony Popovic’s side were beaten 3-0 by Melbourne Victory in the Hyundai A-League on Friday night but at least have five days – albeit with a long plane trip in between – to recover for this match.
While FC Seoul should be fresher than the Wanderers, their domestic form has been poor in the K-League so far. They have lost both of their first two matches against Ulsan Hyundai and Alex Wilkinson’s Jeonbuk Motors.
While the Wanderers have struggled to move away from the foot of the ladder all season, attacker Labinot Haliti says they aren’t concerned heading to Korea.
“There’s no reason why we can’t take a massive amount of confidence from beating Seoul last season,” he said.
“From what I understand they’ve not changed too many players, and this is still the start of a new Asian campaign for us.”
Seoul will have some extra motivation to get a win in this clash, having lost to the Wanderers in the semi-finals of last year’s competition.
On that occasion the Wanderers drew the first leg in Seoul 0-0 before returning to Parramatta and winning 2-0 thanks to goals from Mateo Poljak and Shannon Cole.
Interestingly both of those players won’t be involved in this one, Cole due to injury while Poljak was left out of the Wanderers ACL squad.
The defending champions will face similar threats to what Seoul offered last year, with imports Mauricio Molina, Osmar Barba and Everton Santos the main danger-men.
Ex-Korean international Cha Du-Ri is well-known to Australian fans and was part of Korea’s side that lost to the Socceroos in January’s Asian Cup final.
The Wanderers have plenty of injury worries with Cole, Brendon Santalab, Mark Bridge and Brendan Hamill all missing the trip, while Popovic will be hopeful Matthew Spiranovic can shrug off a hamstring injury to play.
If he is fit, Spiranovic will come straight into the heart of defence alongside skipper Nikolai Topor-Stanley, allowing Iacopo La Rocca to shift back into his favoured midfield role.
Yojiro Takahagi will also come straight back into midfield, with Tomi Juric likely to get the nod ahead of Kerem Bulut in attack.
“Morale is good, we’ve built a strong core here over nearly three seasons, and it’s still definitely good to be around the boys,” Haliti said.
“We’re not giving up, we have to play with a mindset of trying to win because we owe it to our fans, the best in the country.
“Even when results haven’t been brilliant this season in the A-League they still keep coming to back us in numbers and we have to respond to that. Our fans are the best in the country and they’d expect nothing less from us.”