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WANDERERS WIN AFC CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

46Western Sydney Wanderers weathered an unrelenting onslaught from Al Hilal to hold on to their slender advantage from the first leg of the AFC Champions League final to be crowned Australia’s first-ever Asian club kings thanks to a goalless draw at King Fahd International Stadium on Saturday night.

Tony Popovic’s side, that features a number of AFC Asian Cup hopefuls, somehow kept the two-time continental champions at bay in front of a fiercely partisan full house to win 1-0 on aggregate thanks to Tomi Juric’s goal from the first leg in Parramatta last week.

Goalkeeper Ante Covic was the hero for the A-League side on Saturday evening, making a stunning save from Saudi international star Yasser Al Qahtani five minutes from time to deny the Saudis the chance to take the game into extra-time before keeping out Asian Cup bound Nasser Al Shamrani’s goal-bound effort moments later.

Covic’s late interventions capped a stellar display between the posts from the 39-year-old, but Al Hilal had only themselves to blame in a dominant display that should have resulted in a comfortable win for the Saudi giants.

Neither Juric nor Al Qahtani made it into the starting line-ups for their respective sides as both made one change each, as Al Hilal called Nawaf Al Abid for Abdullah Al Zori while Kwabena Appiah came in for Daniel Mullen for Western Sydney.

Thiago Neves was a constant thorn in the side of the Western Sydney defence, with the Brazilian at the heart of everything that was threatening from Al Hilal. It was from his 19th minute free kick that Digao should have scored, only for the defenders header to go wide.

A 29th minute shot from the edge of the area by Neves was deflected wide for a corner before Nikolai Topor-Stanley blocked another effort from the Brazilian minutes later.

But, with two minutes to go to the interval, Neves had the best chance of the half, only to steer his free header from eight yards over the bar when he had the goal at his mercy.

Both coaches made changes early in the second half, as Appiah made way for Vitor Saba for Western Sydney while, three minutes before the hour mark, Al Qahtani was introduced for his first taste of the final having missed the first leg due to suspension.

Within five minutes of his introduction, the former AFC Player of the Year looked set to find the back of the net after receiving the ball in the box from Salman Al Faraj, but his shot slid wide with the goal at his mercy.

Three minutes later Al Faraj had his effort blocked by the goalkeeper when he was one-on-one with Covic while Al Shamrani headed just wide as Al Faraj continued to terrorise the defence.

Al Hilal continued to rack up the opportunities, with Al Qahtani’s downward header easily collected by Covic while Al Shamrani’s form in front of goal belied his status as the tournament’s leading scorer, missing with a point-blank header as time steadily ran out for the Saudis.

With five minutes remaining Covic pulled off the save of the game, diving to his right to somehow push Al Qahtani’s shot to safety when a goal looked a certainty.

And when he kept Al Shamrani’s attempt out with less than two minutes remaining, the game was up for Al Hilal as Western Sydney notched up an historic – if unlikely – success a little more than two years after the club’s first-ever competitive game.




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