Mariners continue a wonderful story
The fairytale continues. In a season which started with some questioning their inclusion in the A-League, the Central Coast Mariners have marched all the way to next week’s grand final against Sydney FC, and with the momentum of 12 undefeated games behind them, there’s no doubt they are there on merit and will give the title a shake.
So a pre-season that started with a loss to Sydney in the final of the world club championship qualifiers back in May, will end with a rematch, this time for the biggest prize, the title of the inaugural A-League champion.
In a competitive yet good-spirited preliminary final away to minor premiers Adelaide United yesterday evening, the Mariners scored early and defended with the character, belief and surprise element that has epitomised their campaign.
While two of the recognised superstars in Tom Pondeljak and Andre Gumprecht were responsible for conjuring up the seventh minute winner, it was another emerging superstar in goalkeeper Danny Vukovic who provided the heroics at the other end, making a couple of excellent blocks to deny key front-men Fernando Rech and Shengqing Qu, as well as coming off his line on numerous occasions to thwart the Adelaide attack.
One particular example came late on when Adelaide were pressing for an equaliser, a long ball seemingly playing Travis Dodd in down the right. Hesitate and Vukovic was in trouble, but the young custodian was as decisive as he has been all season, reaching the ball just ahead of the flying Dodd.
He had a little more luck when the crossbar came to his aid to deny Rech from a wonderful free kick late on.
Vukovic, 20, has summed up the manner in which most of this Mariners teammates have risen well above pre-season expectations, coming into the team early when number one John Crawley was injured and playing with the maturity and consistency you’d expect from a keeper in his late 20s. Had it not been for the continued good form of Sydney’s Clint Bolton, Vukovic would undoubtedly have been the best keeper of the inaugural A-League season.
In truth though, Vukovic wasn’t on his own in the heroic stakes last night. Mariners manager Lawrie McKinna has moulded a team full of spirited and determined players, and here they again showed how willingly they work for each other, surviving the inevitable Adelaide onslaught in their typical no-fuss style.
The back four were again magnificent, and brilliantly marshaled by another surprise packet in Andrew Clark, the player who had some NSL experience with Canberra Cosmos and Parramatta Power, but who has punched well above his weight all season.
McKinna has been on the record saying he expected Clark, who doubles up as the clubs conditioning coach, to perhaps play a few games, but he has been a regular and vital cog of the Mariners central defence alongside Michael Beauchamp, his speed a particular feature.
While this defencive strength and the fact they have only been beaten on the road once this season no doubt provided the belief, McKinna has to take much of the credit for game plan.
Here his team turned on a master-class in finals football, soaking up all Adelaide could throw at them and hitting the hosts with a ruthless counter-attack, designed to test Adelaide in the area they are most vulnerable, out wide, at the back.
McKinna had been on the record stating the most important thing would be not to concede in the first quarter of this match. The sucker-punch was to attack early and try and grab something his team could defend, and the game plan worked better than he could have imagined, with all four players on yellow cards surviving a second caution that would have rubbed them out of the decider.
While the goal was a moment of hesitation that Adam van Dommele will have nightmares about, it was Gumprecht who drove up-field with purpose and pace and made the most of a quick Vukovic throw.
Pondeljak, who has been supplying more than scoring this season, had been encouraged by McKinna in the lead up to this match to add to his solitary goal for the campaign, and here he delivered.
It was a tactical adjustment by McKinna that gave the Mariners the edge to test Adelaide’s speed at the back. Hitherto, Stewart Petrie has been the furthest forward in attack, with Pondeljak dropping off to link up play, but here they were switched around, Pondeljak, with his extra pace, pushed up to test the big defenders, Michael Valkanis and Kristian Rees, particularly on the break.
It was more thoughtful work from a manager who has enhanced his reputation as one of the shrewdest football minds in Australia.
Adelaide will rue taking their foot off the pedal after sowing up the minor premiership in round 18. In the six games since they failed to win, and must feel as if luck deserted them at the wrong end of the season. After hitting the post twice last week in Sydney and again here when Rech’s late free-kick rattled the crossbar, John Kosmina will feel the football gods conspired to deny his men.
Perhaps the locals also sensed that Adelaide had run its race for the year, a poor showing for their most vital game of the season, despite the competition from cricket and AFL.
The result gave further credibility to the theory that momentum is everything come the crunch end of the season, with Sydney and the Mariners the two teams flying when it counts.
Sydney are undefeated in their past four matches, while the Mariners will be looking to make it three away wins on the trot in the finals after 1-0 victories at both Newcastle and Adelaide.