Preview: Beijing Guoan v Central Coast Mariners
Past five matches (in all competitions):
We were writing the Mariners off at home and abroad as little as two weeks ago in the wake of their 3-1 loss to an unimpressive Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park. But then they went and beat J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-1 at home, following that up with a 3-1 F3 derby triumph over Newcastle Jets. Those two victories shored up both their A-League finals hopes and their chances of progressing to the ACL knockout stages. Beijing meanwhile have drawn both of their first two matches, 1-1 at home to FC Seoul and away to Sanfrecce by the same scoreline, to sit third in Group F, a point behind the Mariners. Their form has been good in the Chinese Super League, beating Changchun Yatai and Dalian Aerbin to take a maximum six points from the first two games of the 2014 season.
The big issue:
Beijing - Scoring goals looks like an issue for the Chinese club at this early stage of the campaign. They put four past Chonburi in an ACL playoff in February, but since then haven't scored more than one goal in each of their last four games. Seven-cap Nigeria international Peter Utaka, brother of former Portsmouth man John Utaka, scored in the draw against Seoul, while Korean midfielder Dae-Sung Ha found the net away to Sanfrecce. Badly missing the departed Trent Sainsbury, the Mariners have been far from foolproof at the back in recent months. Will this be the game when Beijing's strikeforce find their range?
Mariners - Can a much-changed Central Coast side carry their improved form with them away from home? They looked a little out of their depth on matchday one against beaten finalist Seoul, although some questionable decisions from the referee didn't help them. If Phil Moss really has managed to get his new-look outfit firing, they will need to earn a positive result in China to prove it, before looking to the A-League run-in and finals campaign with renewed optimism.
The game breaker:
Former Sheffield United man Nick Montgomery has been in excellent form for the Mariners so far in 2014, reportedly drawing interest from the K-League. His strong showings have not been limited to the A-League - the 32-year-old Brit was instrumental in Central Coast winning enough of the ball to put away Sanfrecce last week, and he will need to be on his game again in the Chinese capital for his team to have a chance of claiming the points.
Prediction: Beijing Guoan 1-2 Mariners
We're tipping Central Coast's recent upturn to continue when they make the long trip to China. It's unlikely Beijing Guoan can be worse than Guizhou Renhe in their limp 1-0 loss to Western Sydney Wanderers, but the Mariners are sure to be brimming with confidence after backing up their J-League scalp with a local derby triumph, so let's get behind the underdog.