Tony Popovic could not have been prouder after his under-manned Western Sydney Wanderers fought out a 1-1 draw with Sydney FC on Saturday.
With four first-team regulars unavailable – including skipper Michael Beauchamp who was a late scratching – the Wanderers overcame a half-time deficit to snatch a draw and inch closer to the minor premiership.
The only way the Wanderers can lose top spot is if Central Coast win their final two matches, while the A-League newcomers will need to lose to Newcastle in their last game next weekend.
While the result stops the club’s winning streak at 10 and means they have to wait to get their hands on some silverware, Popovic refused to get downbeat.
“The message we’ve given the players is that we’ve gone a step closer,” Popovic said afterwards.
“We’re six clear now and continuing our unbeaten run to 11 games and we move on to next week.
“We had numerous opportunities in the first half and didn’t capitalise but the players stuck at it and played some good football.
“We didn’t get the result but in the end the least we deserved was a point.”
Popovic saved special praise for the players who filled in for his absent stars, including defender Shannon Cole, whose stunning free-kick cancelled out Alessandro Del Piero’s first-half opener.
“I think derbies are difficult, regardless of who is playing, but the players that came in were fantastic,” the Wanderers boss said.
“They haven’t got a lot of matches under their belt and they more than held their own.
“To come from behind in such a great atmosphere, the players didn’t crumble.
“I felt they did a great job. They’ll learn from this, get stronger and better and next time they’re confronted with this situation, probably in the play-offs when we play at home in front of this type of crowd, maybe we’ll take it that next step further.”
Popovic will be sweating on scans for marquee man Shinji Ono, who was forced from the field early in the second half with a groin strain.
The Japanese midfielder must be in severe doubt for Friday’s clash with the Jets at Hunter Stadium.
One player who will definitely be unavailable for the Wanderers is defender Iacopo La Rocca, who was sent off in stoppage time for elbowing Terry Antonis.
A three-game ban for the Italian would rule him out for the remainder of the season.
“It was a clear red, a definite send-off,” Popovic conceded.
“I don’t know what he’ll miss but a straight red normally is more than one week.”
Defender Adam D’Apuzzo was replaced at half-time with a foot injury and Popovic said he would be monitored during the week before deciding if he will face the Jets.