Western Sydney Wanderers celebrate Tarek Elrich’s equaliser.
Western Sydney Wanderers celebrate Tarek Elrich’s equaliser.

Last-ditch Elrich salvages draw

THERE'S a sweet irony in the fact Tarek Elrich could hardly get a game under Tony Popovic in Western Sydney's inaugural A-League season.

Not least because some six years later the defender sent Popa's Perth packing with a point when, up until the 95th minute on Sunday night, they thought they had three.

The Wanderers might have been left to rue the one that got away had an opener from former Wanderer Chris Ikonomidis propelled the Glory closer yet to their first piece of A-League silverware.

Until Elrich, one of the very first players signed by Popovic at the Wanderers' inception, smashed an absolute peach in the last kick of the final game at fruitless temporary home ground Spotless Stadium.

The searing strike from outside the box left Liam Reddy for dead and denied the goalkeeper a ninth clean sheet, and the 1-1 draw was fitting reward for a second half full of energy and signs the team's lustre is not completely lost.

"If you want beat quality you have to bring mentality," Babbel said.

"Especially in the second half we could show it."


Tarek Elrich nails the equaliser.
Tarek Elrich nails the equaliser.

It also denied the Glory a club-record 15 regular-season wins and pegs their lead at the top back to eight points ahead of Sydney FC, while the red and black remain in eighth and 11 points adrift of the top six.

The Wanderers entered this contest in pursuit of a third consecutive victory for the first time since April 2017.

The league's form team, however, presented a step up in class that took some adapting at a stadium so sparsely populated one could hear the odd punter shout "Come back Popa".

Popovic's homecoming was not quite a prodigal-son story, but there was a parable in there somewhere about the importance of structure and sound defence.

For they were qualities often - at least in the first half - lacking in the once-near-impenetrable Wanderers team he left so abruptly at the start of last season, and traits more evident in the Perth squad over which he now presides.

Since the Glory welcomed Popovic back to Australia from Turkey with open arms, the former Socceroos defender has fashioned an intimidating rearguard that's conceded only 18 goals in 20 games.

Western Sydney Wanderers celebrate Tarek Elrich’s goal to seal a draw.
Western Sydney Wanderers celebrate Tarek Elrich’s goal to seal a draw.

That might have been alright had the Glory been less quick and organised going forward than their hosts.

Yet the Wanderers, who'd set up to match their visitors' back three, simply struggled to keep up, and Rashid Mahazi and Keanu Baccus more than once toiled in the wake of the 36-year-old Diego Castro.

Other protagonists were at this reunion too.

Soon-to-retire foundation player and old-time Popovic favourite Mark Bridge returned from a 337-day injury-afflicted absence and received the biggest reception of all from the small crowd, conspicuous in the absence of the once-again protesting Red and Black Bloc's chanting.

Then there was ex-Wanderers fan favourite Matthew Spiranovic wearing purple, and the man currently Popovic is currently courting Roly Bonevacia.

But it was Ikonomidis who made the biggest difference.

By the end of a forgettable opening 20 minutes underlined by a cruel suspected ACL injury to 21-year-old Jordan O'Doherty, the Socceroos' Asian Cup attacking revelation had already tested Vedran Janjetovic from a tight angle.

On that occasion the goalkeeper tipped it over the bar, but in the 23rd minute Janjetovic wasn't nearly so alert as Castro thread a beauty of a ball into the area.

Liam Reddy beaten in the final moments by Tarek Elrich.
Liam Reddy beaten in the final moments by Tarek Elrich.

The unmarked Ikonomidis prodded home first time, nutmegging the custodian for good measure.

Of course, the 23-year-old didn't celebrate his eighth goal of the season against the club with whom he spent four months on loan from Lazio last season.

That didn't stop him trying for a second, and he would have had one with an assist from striker cum crosser extraordinaire Andy Keogh had his subsequent header not been so lame.

The Wanderers hung in there, and Oriol Riera spawned hope on the tick of halftime with a solid header off a free-kick Reddy did well to divert.

After the break they came out blazing, helped by Mitchell Duke off the bench, and suddenly there was so much opportunity Popovic practically bristled in the dugout.

But Perth were the consummate professionals, chewing up the seconds, and only a top-draw Janjetovic save denied deny Keogh before Elrich finally had his way.

"Early in the second half we had a couple of good opportunities to put the game away and they kept coming and coming," Popovic said.

"They're the home team, they put pressure on us. I don't believe they created any chances but we were constantly under pressure, we probably didn't retain the ball anywhere near where we did in the first half."