ACL Preview: Central Coast Mariners v Beijing Guoan
Played: 1, Wins: Mariners 0, Beijing 1
Beijing 2-1 Mariners, March 19 2014
Past five matches (in all competitions):
The Mariners go into this vital game in excellent form, having won four of their last five matches in all competitions. That sequence has included an encouraging victory over J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima, a derby triumph at the expense of local rivals Newcastle Jets and a potentially significant win at home to fellow top-two hopefuls Western Sydney Wanderers.
Unfortunately for Phil Moss and his players, their one reverse in that time came at the hands of this week's opponents Beijing. The visitors to Gosford lost to the Shanghai SIPG side of Mariners old boy Daniel McBreen in their most recent Chinese Super League fixture last week. They are otherwise also in good form, having started the 2014 season with a seven-match unbeaten run.
The big issue:
Mariners – Although Central Coast do not have to worry about the fatigue associated with travel to a distant away fixture, there is still likely to be some tired bodies in Tuggerah this week. Perhaps with an eye to this fixture, Moss kept Nick Montgomery on the bench until the last 10 minutes of the Wanderers game on Saturday, and the combative midfielder is likely to start in mid-week. Bernie Ibini, scorer of the winner against Western Sydney, and fellow forward Mitchell Duke also came on in the second half of that game, and one or both could come into the starting XI, especially with Mat Simon picking up an injury last time out.
Beijing – The visitors from China are unlikely to encounter a hostile atmosphere from the genteel crowd on the Central Coast of NSW, but they could well be in for a bruising encounter on the field. The Mariners felt they were on the end of some rough treatment at the Workers' Stadium in the teams' first meeting, and Moss promised in the aftermath that his players would return the favour. If Simon does miss out the hosts will lose one of the players capable of putting himself about, but the likes of Marcel Seip, Zach Anderson, Eddy Bosnar, skipper John Hutchinson and Montgomery are all capable of making life uncomfortable for opposing players, and we don't mean with the ball at their feet.
The game breaker:
Yugoslavia-born Darko Matic proved a handful for the Mariners in the previous game and is likely to be a dangerman again this week. Of more concern is South Korea international Ha Dae-Sung, a January acquisition from FC Seoul who came on at half-time and arguably decided the contest in Beijing's favour. If head coach Gregorio Manzano, formerly in charge of Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and a host of other Spanish clubs, opts to start the midfielder in this one, it could be a long night for the home side.
Prediction: Central Coast 2-1 Beijing Guoan.
Let's look to the Mariners' stirring fight-back and win over Sanfrecce rather than the scrappy defeat to Beijing as the guide for how this match will unfold. There should be no shortage of motivation for either side - Central Coast are bottom of Group F with three points, but are only two points back from the leaders Beijing, with Sanfrecce and FC Seoul both on four points. A win in Gosford for the Australians and their 2014 AFC Champions League campaign is well and truly alive, with a repeat of last season's progression to the knockout stages looking far more likely than it did during their form slump in January and early February.