Popovic turning back to Japanese for spark
WESTERN Sydney Wanderers coach Tony Popovic would have been scratching his head for most of this season wondering why his once all-conquering team was struggling to even register an A-League win.
But after a surprise 3-1 Asian Champions League success against J-League giants Kashima Antlers, he might well be thinking his team's season is about to kick into gear.
Popovic looked on from the stands in Japan on Wednesday night as he served game one of his two-game suspension for his part in the unseemly scenes in last season's ACL quarter-final tie against Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande.
What the coach saw would have pleased him, and looking on from afar might well have given the coach a better perspective on the game, allowing him to see just what his team needs to do get back to winning ways in the domestic competition.
That the Wanderers have struggled this season has been a mystery to all, including me, who tipped Western Sydney to take the A-League crown at the end of this campaign.
Some suggested, and rightly so, that the exertions of their ACL campaign hurt the Wanderers early in the season and the two opening defeats against Melbourne Victory (4-1) and Sydney FC (3-2) definitely backed that theory up.
But no one, including me, expected the Wanderers to have to wait until February for its first A-League success, a 2-0 victory over Wellington Phoenix.
Most expected the Wanderers to use that win as a springboard to relaunch their season, but after a 1-1 draw with fellow strugglers Newcastle Jets and a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Adelaide, it was back to square one for Popovic and his staff.
One of the main problems for the team this season has been a lack of goals.
Only 10 have come in 16 league encounters and you are unlikely to win a lot of games with that lack of scoring power.
The return of Mark Bridge from injury is timely for Popovic and will allow the coach to use new Japanese signing Yojiro Takahagi in a slightly deeper role.
Popovic experimented with the switch of Takahagi into a holding position against the Antlers, and it worked extremely well.
Now perhaps, especially with Bridge's return, Popovic can build a team around Takahagi, just like he did with another Japanese import, Shinji Ono.
If the Wanderers' new signing can be as successful as his countryman, then maybe the club's fortunes in the A-League will start to turn around.
The ACL win could not have come at a more opportune moment with the derby against Sydney FC coming up tomorrow night.
Pirtek Stadium will be packed to the rafters with an expectant home crowd hopeful of a repeat of Wednesday's exceptional performance.
Eleven games in 23 days will certainly test the Wanderers' endurance, but maybe things are finally on the up.