Central Coast Mariners v Gold Coast United: Saturday 5 March, 7pm (AEST) at Bluetongue Stadium, Gosford (TV: Fox Sports 3)
Central Coast Mariners: 1
Gold Coast United: 1
Over recent A-League seasons, Central Coast Mariners had developed a reputation as a side that grinded out results, rather than using all-out attack to win. But since coming under the tutelage of ex-Socceroos mentor Graham Arnold, that reputation has changed markedly. Arnold specifically went into the transfer market and bought players who fitted his attacking ethos, and these players have paid him back in spades. Led by the likes of midfield trio Patricio Perez, Oliver Bozanic and Michael McGlinchey, the Mariners have scored 52 goals from their 32 games this season – a massive improvement on previous years.
On the other hand, Gold Coast United has headed in the complete opposite direction. During its inaugural season last year, United was a team hell-bent on attack, mainly due to the players they had at their disposal. When their offensive style worked, they looked like the Brazilian national team. When it didn’t, they struggled to break down their opposition, thus costing them success in the finals. This year though, coach Miron Bleiberg has built his team around a solid rearguard down back and it has paid handsome dividends.
Central Coast should come into this game in a buoyant mood, despite losing its major semi final encounter with Brisbane Roar at Suncorp Stadium. Trailing 2-0 after losing the first leg at home, the Mariners started brilliantly and took a shock 2-0 first half lead. They had plenty more chances to seal a spot in the Grand Final, however the Roar fought back courageously to draw the game 2-2, consequently sealing a 4-2 aggregate victory. However the Mariners will be comfortable in the knowledge that when these two sides last met, they had an easy 3-1 victory at Skilled Park, despite missing several key players.
Gold Coast has had to endure a much harder campaign to the preliminary final by having to win two sudden-death knockout encounters. Despite their underdog status, United sent Melbourne Victory tumbling out of the finals series with a last gasp winner scored by Dino Djulbic in the first week. They then travelled to Adelaide last weekend and came away with a gutsy 3-2 victory, despite falling 2-1 behind with 15 minutes left in the game. This just proves the incredible self belief and never-say-die attitude amongst the squad to keep fighting right till the end of matches.
Patricio Perez (Central Coast): The silky skilled Argentine playmaker came to the A-League with huge expectations, especially after winning the World Youth Cup in 2005 alongside Lionel Messi, and he has not disappointed. The 25-year-old got off to a slow start after missing several matches due to a hamstring injury and a suspension for diving on debut. But since then, he has shown what he has capable of, scoring six goals and creating as many assists in 17 games. Perez’s ability to create forward thrusts and to always be in the right place at the right time for shooting opportunities easily makes him Central Coast’s X-factor. Interestingly, he didn’t play in the last two matches between these two clubs, therefore his presence could be just what the Mariners need to reach the grand final.
Glen Moss (Gold Coast): The New Zealand international, who was seemingly run out of town following some below par performances for Melbourne Victory last season, has been a revelation for Gold Coast this season since returning to his birthplace. He has an equal league high of 12 clean sheets and is the last line of a very sturdy Gold Coast defence. Moss has singlehandedly earned his team points when they have been totally outplayed and he should expect to be very busy on Saturday. If he can keep his standards up against a very talented Central Coast attack, the boys from the glitter strip may just find themselves in the Grand Final.
Central Coast has two major concerns ahead of this crucial match. They are sweating on the fitness of key striker Matt Simon, who missed last week’s game after cutting his foot on glass while walking his dog. Coach Arnold said he must complete back to back training sessions to be in line for selection. However with Danny McBreen and Adam Kwasnik performing well last week and Bernie Ibini-Isei scoring on season debut in the February fixture, there are more than enough options off the bench in case Simon doesn’t play. Of more concern is the loss of right back Pedj Bojic through suspension after being controversially sent off last week. It is one of the few positions where the Mariners lack depth and Arnold will have to decide whether to move captain Alex Wilkinson from his normal central defensive position to right back, with Rostyn Griffiths stepping in at the back, or to go with youngster Trent Sainsbury.
Gold Coast manager Miron Bleiberg, if he chooses to do so, has the luxury of being able to name an unchanged lineup, which has performed so admirably in this finals series against the odds. Stars Jason Culina and (First name) Robson have been ruled out for the rest of the season, however Ivory Coast defender Adama Traore is back following a quad injury, though he might have to settle for a spot on the bench. With his two goals last week, Shane Smeltz now has 49 A-League goals and is a big chance to become only the second player after Victory’s Archie Thompson to reach 50 goals in a season milestone. Interestingly, this game is rumoured to be Smeltz’s last game in a Gold Coast shirt if they suffer defeat.
This game will ultimately hinge down to the battle in the midfield. Gold Coast’s defensive midfield duo Zenon Caravella and Bas Van Den Brink have been able to successfully curb the influence of creative players such as Adelaide’s Marcos Flores and Victory’s Robbie Kruse throughout the 2010/11 season. Both will need to be at their best once again on Saturday, otherwise it will be a long afternoon with the likes of Perez, Bozanic and McGlinchey able to cause havoc at any moment. The tactical coaching battle between Coaches Bleiberg and Arnold will also be one to watch as they are not afraid of tinkering with their plans during the game.
On paper, the Mariners deserve heavy favouritism and with a big backing from their home supporter base, they should win. But even if they are slightly off their game, the mentally strong Gold Coast team is more than capable of causing an upset. However, having to back up following a short turnaround I feel the Gold Coast boys may just find this a bridge too far.
Central Coast Mariners 3-1 Gold Coast United