- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

SYDNEY (AP) - Tomi Juric scored in the second half to put Western Sydney Wanderers one step away from becoming the first Australian club to win the continental title by beating Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal 1-0 in the first leg of the Asian Champions League final on Saturday night.

Juric’s goal in the 64th minute came shortly after he entered as a substitute and it gave the Wanderers a slender lead ahead of the return leg in Riyadh next week.

“It was a real battle,” Wanderers coach Tony Popovic said. “They’re a very good side. We can’t doubt that but we showed we’re a good side as well getting that goal and having a few chances to go 2-0 up.”

“We had to be very resolute against a very good team and this has given us a chance to win the final.”

Al Hilal’s defense had very little to do for nearly an hour, but Juric’s introduction in the 59th minute for Brendon Santalab changed the contest dramatically.

Within minutes of coming on, the 23-year-old forward slid in to meet defender Antony Golec’s superb curling cross and scored. It was only the third goal Al Hilal’s much-vaunted defence has conceded in its past 10 ACL matches.

“It definitely was one of my biggest goals,” Juric said. “We had a tough job ahead of us today and the boys did a fantastic job in defence and in attack as well.”

Juric almost added a second goal minutes later, but his low shot hit the inside of the post with goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Sudairy beaten.

Popovic praised Juric’s performance and impact on the match.

“Tomi scored a fantastic goal,” the coach said. “It was a great overlap and a real striker’s finish. It’s just a shame he didn’t get that second one.”

The Wanderers’ impressive run in the tournament has seen it defeat Sanfrecce Hiroshima, 2013 champion Guangzhou Evergrande in a quarterfinal and last year’s finalists FC Seoul in a semifinal.

Only a clean sheet in the second leg next week in Riyadh now stands between them and securing Australia’s first club continental title.

“We’re halfway towards achieving something very special,” Popovic said. “We have set the platform now, but the job’s not done.”

Western Sydney is only the second Australian club to reach the ACL final, six years after Adelaide United was thrashed by Japanese club Gamba Osaka in the decider.

Goal-scoring chances were at a premium in a cagey first-half as both teams prioritised defense and easily absorbed any attacking threats.

Juric’s goal opened the game up and Al Hilal staged a furious late rally to score a crucial away goal, but the visitors were denied by a mix of poor finishing and excellent goalkeeping by Ante Covic.

The visitors’ best chance came from Alfaraj Salman in second-half injury time, but was saved by Covic at close range.

“We had a lot of chances, but we lost 1-0,” coach Laurentiu Reghecampf said. “I’m sure after six days when we play the next game my team is going to win.”

“We need only to score one goal and we are going to see what the atmosphere will be in Riyadh.”

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