Central Coast Mariners keep ACL hopes alive
With their domestic ambitions alive and kicking once again, it was hard to know just how seriously the Central Coast Mariners would take their Asian Champions League duties.
The Gosford-based side may be second in the A-League but heading into Tuesday's ACL match with Beijing Guoan, they were last in their group and looking unlikely to advance.
Those prospects looked all the more forlorn when Beijing's Joffre Guerron was brought down by Mariners defender Brent Griffiths in the 67th minute and a penalty was awarded.
However, man-of-the-match Liam Reddy pulled out a stunning save to deny Zhang Xizhe, keeping the Mariners afloat. Seven minutes later, their persistence was rewarded.
Nick Montgomery squeezed a pass from the edge of the area to Kim Seung-Yong, who chipped over the defence to find Marcel Seip. The maligned Dutch defender channelled his inner Denis Bergkamp and smacked the volley across his body and into the far corner.
"I thought we might fall to a sucker punch and then they got the penalty but it was a great stop from 'Rocket' [Reddy] which gave us the confidence to go on and win the game," said Mariners coach Phil Moss.
The result lifted the Mariners, temporarily at least, to the top of the group with two matches to play, and gives them every chance to qualify for the knockout stages should they win one of their final two remaining games against FC Seoul at home on April 16 or against Sanfrecce Hiroshima away a week later.
"Tonight's an important step forward and we got some good performances from some boys who haven't played 90 minutes for a while and it was a fantastic, a very special night at home," Moss said. "I'm just so proud of the players, but I thought we should have buried in the first half."
The match was an important reversal for the Mariners, two weeks after losing 2-1 in Beijing, a match where more than 32,000 cheered the home side on to victory. About a tenth of that number (3316) made it to Bluetongue Stadium, although it is worth noting Beijing's catchment of 21 million somewhat exceeds Central Coast's reach of 350,000.
Mariners' boss Phil Moss made six changes to the starting side that defeated Western Sydney on Saturday, giving a rare start to defender Griffiths and a starting debut to attacking midfielder Isaka Cernak.
The visitors lined up with an attacking 4-2-2-2 system - not dissimilar to Melbourne Victory's standard formation - featuring a cosmopolitan front third, Chinese internationals Shao Jiayi and Zhang split wide in attacking midfield, behind Nigerian Peter Utaka and the lively Ecuadorian Guerron.
Despite the impressive pedigree, they couldn't impose themselves on the contest early, with the home side making all the running, holding possession well and creating the bulk of the chances.
The Mariners could have hit the lead on 22 minutes when Josh Rose curled a low cross that was met by a scrambling Zhao Heijing, who knocked the ball onto the post. Bernie Ibini - who looked the most dangerous Mariners attacker all night - reached the rebound but could only screw his effort into the side netting.
He had another chance close to half-time after a delightful flick from Mitch Duke set Ibini racing through. He left right-back Zhou Ting for dead but keeper Yang Zhi raced off his line to foil the shot.
It wasn't until the 42nd minute that Beijing finally woke up, Guerron finding space to shoot despite spraying high and wide.
A minute later, Jiayi looked set to net the opener after Guerron's cross but Reddy pulled out a miracle save to deny the visitors.
The game seemingly wasn't going anywhere in the second half when things looked to turn in the visitors' favour after Griffiths foolishly lunged in on Guerron, leaving the referee with no choice but to award the penalty.
However, Reddy, who was thumping the bar furiously to put off Zhang, managed to guess correctly from the spot to pull off an outstanding save.
That was all the impetus the Mariners required to turn things around, with Seip's cracking finish already the highlight of his first season on Brisbane Water.
Central Coast Mariners 1(Marcel Seip 73) Beijing Guo'an 0 at Bluetongue Stadium. Referee: Hettikamkanamge Perera
Sydney Morning Herald