Western Sydney are winless after their first six matches, but coach Tony Popovic believes his Wanderers are placed “very well” heading into this Saturday’s Sydney derby at Pirtek Stadium.
Popovic’s side could easily have accumulated more points during the past week had it put away a litany of chances against Central Coast on Wednesday and then against Newcastle three days later. Instead the Wanderers had to settle for a point from each occasion. However, the coach is adamant they can convert their domination over the opposition into something tangible in the season’s second derby – especially after losing the first 3-2 at Allianz Stadium.
“If we’re going to talk about performances – which we always do talk about – you can see an improvement. From Wellington to Perth, there’s just little moments, and the moments got bigger against Central Coast, they got bigger against Newcastle, and we want that now for the derby,” Popovic said. “Derbies, from my experience here, are unique, they’re unpredictable. Form doesn’t really matter in these games too much. There are always incidents and flashpoints, but we want the flashpoint to be a Western Sydney top performance. I believe, with that, that the three points will be matched.”
Squad selection will again be a hot topic this week as the Wanderers will likely have a fully fit and fresh squad to choose from, minus Brendon Santalab whose shoulder injury will keep him sidelined until the new year. Big-game specialist Mark Bridge looms to be one of the major talking points after being benched for the past two matches and there is no guarantee he’ll start against his old side.
Bridge has been sidelined recently as Popovic looks to get game time into new trio Nikita Rukavytsya, Vitor Saba and Romeo Castelen, all of whom showed glimpses in the past two matches. “We want our squad to get better and we want to keep evolving. We’ve had a lot of success in a short period. But the reason these players have come in is: can we get better? That’s why they’re here and that creates competition for places. I want everyone looking over their shoulder, including the new players,” he said. “They’re not guaranteed a start just because they’re new players. They have to earn that right. Every week the players train extremely hard to try and get in that first eleven. That’s the environment we want to create because all successful teams have it and if we want to keep challenging for honours, we’ve got to have that. We can’t get complacent.”
Castelen was blistering against the Jets early, but was brought off less than an hour into the contest with Popovic blaming fatigue for the Dutchman’s early exit. “If you watched the game, you would have seen he was probably tired after 35 minutes. He was dead, in terms of his physical [output],” Popovic said. “He’s a player that plays at a high intensity and we’re getting him match fit now, through the season. As I’ve said numerous times, with all the players, he was again better, but he will take time to finish a 90-minute game, to play at the tempo that he plays.”
Daniel Alessi was another pulled prematurely from the contest, with the coach admitting the teenager was overwhelmed at right-back. “He wasn’t injured, but I thought the young boy found it very difficult. He’s 17, he’s a young boy that has promise, but it was just one of those days,” Popovic said. “It’s part of his development. I had it when I was 16-17, and I had Ron Corry [now Wanderers’ goalkeeping coach] coaching me at 16, and he took me off numerous times at half-time. It’s just part of [Alessi’s] development, him evolving, it was a tough game for him.”
A more pleasing sign in the draw against Newcastle was the form of Saba, with the Brazilian previously flattering to deceive as the replacement for Japanese legend Shinji Ono. “It was good to see. We see his talent at training, we see small glimpses, then he gets tired at training. But the glimpses are getting more and more,” Popovic said. “The moments are getting more and more, and longer. This was his best game and I think he walked off feeling like ‘I’m starting to adjust, I’m starting to settle in to a new country and new football’. He’ll only gets better and better.”