AFC Champions League Preview: Central Coast Mariners v Sanfrecce Hiroshima
Past five matches (in all competitions):
It doesn't look pretty for the Mariners heading to the climax of the 2013-14 A-League season, and the AFC Champions League is unlikely to offer any respite. As we all know, the squad which Graham Arnold took to the A-League title and last season's ACL knockout stages has been gutted, and the coach himself has moved on. Phil Moss has been able to bring in players to replace the numerous departures, but they don't appear to have quite same quality, and if even they do, it certainly isn't apparent yet. Six defeats from seven in all competitions tells you everything you need to know about the Mariners' prospects both at home and abroad. They lost 2-0 away to FC Seoul on matchday one of the 2014 ACL, and another home defeat here against the Japanese title-holders will make it all but impossible for them to escape the group.
The big issue:
Mariners – Confidence must be low for the Mariners. Moss insists he has faith in the quality of the players at his disposal, but do they have faith in each other? On Friday night Central Coast dominated possession and created several chances through careful probing away to Melbourne Victory, but fell behind and never recovered, despite drawing level in the second half. The new players are yet to fully settle and those left behind after the exodus are still learning how best to play with their new colleagues. Next season may bring improved fortunes for the Gosford side, but it looks like more short-term pain before they get there.
Sanfrecce – Getting off the mark in the ACL will be a priority for Sanfrecce, who have made a fast start in the J-League, winning both of their opening two matches, as well as avenging last season's Emperor's Cup loss by beating Yokohama F Marinos in the curtain-raising Super Cup. But they were held to a 1-1 draw by Beijing Guoan in their ACL group stage opener, and will want to make up for that by claiming maximum points against a team who are likely to be viewed by their three opponents as the group's whipping boys.
The game breaker:
Zach Anderson, deprived in recent weeks of regular partner Trent Sainsbury following his move to PEC Zwolle, did his very best to keep out the Victory on Friday night and even scored the equaliser to get his team back in it, before unfortunately handling in the area to give away the penalty which sent the hosts on the way to the win. Eddy Bosnar could return to partner Anderson ahead of Brent Griffiths, or Marcel Seip could come back inside after deputising at right-back in place of the injured Josh Rose against Victory. But Anderson is now the undisputed main man in the Mariners' backline and will need to be on his game if Moss and his players are to get anything against Sanfrecce.
Prediction: Mariners 0-2 Sanfrecce
Given Central Coast's struggles home and away in domestic competition and their underwhelming start to the ACL away to FC Seoul, we can't see anything other than a routine win for the Japanese visitors, who are sure to control possession and move the ball with ease and at speed, leaving a tired looking Mariners outfit in for a tough night in front of their own fans.