Good times ahead ... three of Western Sydney's imports - Jerome Polenz, Shinji Ono and Youssouf Hersi - laugh at Sydney Airport on Monday after the Wanderers' win over Brisbane Roar. Photo: Tamara Dean
WHILE Tony Popovic reckons any challenge from his Wanderers for the minor premiership is a touch ambitious, he says the club's growing army of supporters should start dreaming of a finals berth.
In perhaps the most stunning debut season of any A-League club, particularly given the low expectations and frugal budget, Western Sydney continue to confound the critics. After Sunday's 2-1 win over Brisbane Roar, the Wanderers are firmly ensconced in fourth, eight points clear of fifth-placed Melbourne Heart, who they will play on Australia Day at Parramatta Stadium.
Fans have started to wonder whether the Wanderers' momentum will see them charging even higher on the table - and possibly to the very top, given that Central Coast could lose several key players to overseas transfers and sit only six points away with 10 games to play. Popovic isn't quite on that bandwagon, but rather than dousing all expectations he says the new-look, three-week finals series gives his team a fighting chance.
''I don't know about the minor premiership but the finals are getting close and our fans can certainly start believing that we have a good chance to get in the top six,'' he said. ''With the format this year, it shows that anyone has a chance of winning the league. We can possibly start dreaming about making the six but there's still a long way to go.''
As always, Popovic said the hyperbole wouldn't be discussed among his players, who have stuck ardently to their plan to avoid the hype.
''There will be no talk about that here with us, but obviously people on the outside have their views and opinions,'' Popovic said. ''We're happy to just keep going along and keep improving and hopefully just keeping getting the results.''
Completing a hat-trick of wins over the two-time defending champions this season - which included the club's first win - will go down as one of their biggest accomplishments.
''It's a great record to have against Brisbane and we saw last night that although they're not having their best season, they're still a very formidable outfit and they've got a lot of match-winners in their side,'' Popovic said.
''Every time we've gone behind we've lost the game - and we've also performed better and lost. This time we were down 1-0 at half-time and rightly so. We deserved to be losing, we were quite poor. For the players to improve the way they did in the second half, it was certainly another step forward for us as a club.''
The man who scored the goal that brought the Wanderers back into the game, Mark Bridge, said the side had to respond after an abject early display. ''The first half wasn't ideal - it was actually pretty poor, so to come out in the second half and play with a totally different attitude and keep possession a bit better and get the win was good,'' he said. ''But I'm definitely not looking forward to the video session at training when we go back.''
Bridge said it wasn't necessarily a motivational team talk or a restructure that brought about an improved performance in the second stanza. ''We knew what we were doing wrong. We were turning over the ball cheaply, in poor positions and we were our own worst enemy,'' he said.
The closeness of the top four teams means that Wanderers now have destiny in their own hands. ''Where we finish now is up to us, really,'' Bridge said.
''So long as we keep working hard and do the right things, the higher up we'll finish.''