A-League Preview: Duke and Rogic could send Mariners all the way

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    Central Coast Mariners Bernie Ibini pulls at the shirt of the Melbourne Heart's Curtis Good. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

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    The big question for the Mariners heading into the season is whether they can find a consistent goal-scoring replacement for Matt Simon.

    But in Mile Sterjovski and Mitchell Duke they might just have a combination which could propel them to a much-coveted championship, especially with Tom Rogic doing the prompting.

    The recap:

    2011/12: 15 wins, six draws, six losses – First place (Lost 5-3 on penalties in Final to Perth Glory)

    Having bowed out of the finals in straight sets after being hit by the mid-season departures of Simon and Rostyn Griffiths, Graham Arnold had to find solutions and it looks like he’s done exactly that.

    Make no mistake, the Mariners will be right in the mix again this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Duke emerge as one of the young guns of the season.

    Promoted from the youth side, Duke looks to not only have the work rate and tenacity of Simon, but looks a far more refined player technically.

    On Saturday morning, at the club’s fan day in Tuggerah, he scored two goals in the opening 15 minutes of an intra-club 11 vs 11 game, finishing with the precision and power of a seasoned striker.

    He is strong, quick, always on the move and appears to have terrific sense inside the box, finding space where it counts.

    Long-time Roarer Midfielder has been going on about Duke here for a couple of seasons, and it’s easy to see why.

    His combination with Sterjovski and Rogic in the opening half of this scratch-match at Tuggerah was too much for the second team, who could barely get a touch.

    While Sterjovski isn’t completely match-fit yet, his movement and link-up play will add much to the Mariners front third, and Arnold will entrust him with set pieces and much more.

    Rogic, meanwhile, has had a full pre-season and looks set for another bumper campaign, gliding about, influencing, making football look a breeze.

    Indeed, watching the way Arnold’s side zipped the ball around on the pristine pitch at their Centre of Excellence, it was hard not to get carried away.

    This team looks easy on the eye, and the hope is that the Central Coast appreciates their team and responds with some bumper gates.

    While Alex Wilkinson, Simon, Mustafa Amini and Rostyn Griffiths might not be around anymore, Arnold and his coaching committee look to have added more depth than ever.

    The prospect of the Mariners starting the season with no room in the starting 11 for Justin Pasfield, Bernie Ibini, Oliver Bozanic, Adriano Pellegrino, Zac Anderson, Troy Hearfield and Daniel McBreen tells you much about the quality at Arnold’s disposal.

    The competition for the three outfield spots on the bench (we really need to move to a seven man bench) will be as intense here as it is anywhere.

    Pasfield, for example, is good enough on his form last season to be a number one anywhere, while Pellegrino has shed 10 kilos in the off-season and been buzzing about the midfield, playing in a slightly more withdrawn role.

    Others like Bozanic and Ibini, often regulars last season, may have to bide their time.

    With Trent Sainsbury slotting seamlessly into Wilkinson’s spot alongside Patrick Zwaanswijk, having been groomed for a couple of seasons, they shouldn’t lose a great deal.

    Indeed, Sainsbury’s form and the arrival of Zach Anderson from Gold Coast United should add even more depth and quality. After a difficult start to his career, Anderson looked extremely comfortable towards the end of last season.

    Meanwhile, in midfield, Nick Montgomery has come in as replacement for Griffiths and looks a handy addition, bringing experience in the holding role, allowing new skipper John Hutchinson to revert back to the left side when Arnold goes with a diamond.

    In the past, this 4-4-2, with a diamond midfield, has been the standard template.

    But Arnold has been using much of the pre-season to add some tactical flexibility, drilling his men on a new 4-2-3-1 formation, which should allow them to start their pressing higher, and keep opponents guessing.

    The manager, who flirted with a move to Sydney early in the off-season, appears more than happy with the progress of the new system and has hinted that he’ll be switching up during games.

    He did exactly that at half time on Saturday, and the players seemed comfortable enough, with Duke likely to play through the middle and Sterjovski dropping wide.

    A 4-2-3-1 would mean a holding axis of Montgomery and Hutchinson, but others, like Pellegrino and Bozanic, have also been groomed there.

    This tactical flexibility is another little notch on the Mariners belt.

    The fact the FFA have looked after them in the second half of the seasons, when they will be at Bluetongue regularly during their Asian Champions League campaign, also helps.

    Indeed, the fact the Mariners have only eight away flights this season makes their case even compelling, especially when compared to the likes of Brisbane, Wellington, Adelaide and Perth, who fly every second week.

    With the increased depth, tactical flexibility, a more favourable draw than last season, and better quality in the front third, I’m expecting the Mariners to be right in the mix for both the Premiership and Championship, invariably among the top few.

    Prediction: First – third

    Player movements

    In: Mile Sterjovski (Dalian Aerbin, China), Nick Montgomery (Sheffield United), Zach Anderson (Gold Coast United), Brent Griffiths (Heidelberg United, VPL)

    Out: Alex Wilkinson (Jeonbuk FC, K-League), Mustafa Amini (Borussia Dortmund), Sam Gallagher (Melbourne Victory), Trent McClenahan (Sydney FC)

    Tony Tannous
    Tony Tannous

    Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTannousTRBA