Western Sydney Wanderers overcame what seemed like insurmountable odds to knock title-holders and tournament favourites Guangzhou Evergrande out of the Asian Champions League and book their place in the semi-finals.
The Wanderers lost the quarter-final’s second leg 2-1 in China on Wednesday night but went through on away goals following last week’s 1-0 upset win at home.
Western Sydney, who now join Adelaide United as only the second A-League team to reach the semis of the continental competition, will now meet FC Seoul for a spot in the final.
In the other semi-final, Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal will meet Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates, with the first leg in Riyadh on September 16.
The Wanderers survived a dominant display from the Asian juggernauts with goalkeeper Ante Covic’s first-half penalty save and Tomi Juric’s coolly-slotted spot kick proving the crucial moments for the Wanderers.
Former Italian international Alessandro Diamanti and prolific Brazilian striker Elkeson scored late goals for Evergrande but it wasn’t enough.
Despite a 1-0 advantage the out-of-season Wanderers weren’t given much hope against one of Asia’s richest and most successful clubs who boast a glut of internationals and who were pumped up after a drama-filled first leg at Parramatta Stadium last Wednesday.
Tensions were still high after the last week’s controversy which resulted in a touch-line ban of Evergrande’s World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi and suspensions for key players Goa Lin and Zhang Linpeng.
The Wanderers entered into a hostile atmosphere created by almost 60,000 fired-up Guangzhou fans, the 30-plus degree heat and severe humidity just adding to the already cauldron-like environment.
Starting Mark Bridge, Juric, Kwabena Appiah and Labinot Haliti, Wanderers coach Tony Popovic was clearly out to attack.
But it was Western Sydney’s defence who kept them in the match, withstanding a steady onslaught from the three-time Chinese Super League champions.
Guangzhou dominated from the opening stages as Diamanti found space for a superb through-ball into the box, Covic rushing off his line to defuse the danger.
Guangzhou’s Italian stars continued to threaten, this time it was Alberto Gilardino hitting the crossbar.
But the Chinese side’s best chance came in there 32nd minute when Iacapo La Rocca gifted them a penalty for a foul on Elkeson in the box.
The Brazilian, who has scored 41 times in 48 games for his side, fired a powerful strike from the spot, but a sensational save from Covic ensured he didn’t add to his tally.
The drama continued after the break when the Wanderers were awarded a penalty of their own after overzealous keeper Zeng Cheng raced off his line and took out the goal-bound Bridge.
Knowing a goal would mean the hosts would need three to go through, young-gun Juric stepped up to the mark and made no mistake, striking the ball past the outstretched Zeng and into the bottom right corner to break the deadlock in the 59th minute.
Evergrande’s Italian duo combined just two minutes later to keep alive their hopes of a comeback with Gilardino setting up Diamanti, who levelled with a clinical finish.
With the clock winding down Guangzhou weren’t done yet with an unmarked Elkeson ensuring some late drama with a goal in extra time for the 2-1 result.