Tony Popovic hailed the impact of his substitutes as Western Sydney Wanderers FC put one hand on the AFC Champions League title with a 1-0 first leg win over Al Hilal on Saturday night.
Despite being pegged back for much of the contest, the Wanderers delivered when it counted with striker Tomi Juric coming off the bench to score the vital goal midway through the second half.
Juric got on the end of an inch-perfect Antony Golec cross to poke home from close range and send the majority of the 20,053 fans into delirium.
Socceroos defender Matthew Spiranovic also featured in a match for the first time since the World Cup, playing the last 15 minutes as the home side held on for arguably the biggest win in their short history.
“His (Juric) impact was fantastic. It’s been seven weeks since he played and Matty (Spiranovic) hasn’t played since June either,” a proud Popovic said afterwards.
“It’s a nice welcome to have a few more players available to come on and make and impact. I thought all the subs did well when they came on.
“It was a fantastic goal. A great ball, great overlap and a real striker’s finish. It’s a shame he (Juric) didn’t get that second one.
“We’re halfway to achieving something special. We’ve set the platform now, the players deserve credit but the jobs not done.”
But they’ve taken a huge step towards completing the fairytale.
The Wanderers only need a draw to claim the continental title, or even a one-goal defeat will be enough providing the score a crucial away goal.
“I was happy even if we just got a result the tie was alive because we’ve shown in all bar one game we can score away from home,” Popovic said.
“This result fills us with confidence. Now we have to recover well and we’re in for a tough battle next week.
“But Al Hilal are going home tonight and they also know that they’re coming up against a very good opponent that can win the title over there.”
The Wanderers struggled to deal with the visitors’ pace and movement for much of the first half, giving away loads of territory and possession but always seeming to find an answer in defence.
“We were concerned but it’s a credit to the players that they didn’t panic,” the Wanderers boss said.
“They looked a bit nervous, when they got on the ball they were nervous. We lacked that bit of composure but in adversity there in the first half they didn’t throw it away and didn’t lose their structure.
“That was very pleasing coming in at half-time we knew we could improve and you could see at the start of the second half we started pressing them a little higher and forcing them to clear a few balls under pressure.”
The Wanderers will have a recovery session on Sunday before flying out to Riyadh on Tuesday night.
Popovic’s troops will then try and finish the job in front of more than 65,00 fans at Al Hilal’s King Fahd International Stadium next Sunday morning (AEDST).