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AFC Cup interzonal semis preview: Is the comeback on, or will the Mariners coast through the second leg?

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12th March, 2024

As ‘Dune: Part Two’ takes the box office by storm, Central Coast Mariners will continue a sweeping epic of their own on Thursday as they travel over 9,000 kilometers to Bhubaneswar, the Temple City of India, and face Odisha FC in the second leg of their AFC Cup inter-zone play-off semi-final. The path to the next round looks clear, but before we forge ahead, let’s look back at how the last leg set the table and size up how the Mariners can finish strong.

Coastal power: How Mariners won the battle

The Mariners grabbed this game by the throat almost immediately, even if it took them some time to secure their grip. A barrage of blown chances defined the early action, and Odisha were able to stave off trouble with a combination of bend-don’t-break defence, gamesmanship, and some pinches of luck.

But with the Juggernauts unable to create consistent chances of their own, it was only a matter of time before something gave way, and in the 35th minute, Josh Nisbet made an incisive cutback pass to Mikael Doka, who redeemed his earlier miss by punching it home to open the scoring. To their credit, Odisha kept fighting, and a clever free kick from tournament assists leader Ahmed Jahouh nearly led to an equaliser, but ultimately that turned into a corner, which became multiple failed shots that handed Mariners the ball back.

The true attacking salvo arrived in the second half, starting when assist-less Ryan Edmondson and goal-less Storm Roux linked up at close range and solved both those problems in one go. Things would only further slip away from Odisha from there, as former Wellington Phoenix star Roy Krishna shoved Jacob Farrell in the box right as the clock struck 75 minutes.

Mikael Doka would step up to take the penalty, and with a shot high and to the right, the Brazilian secured the second brace of his career and his first as a Mariner. Doka capped off his great night in the 89th minute with an assist to Ronald Barcellos, who’s now scored twice off the bench in as many AFC Cup contests. In all, it was a great night for the Mariners, and they’ll look to ride that high into India.

Central Coast celebrate a goal.(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)


The sauce must flow: How to win the war

Walking into Kalinga Stadium with a four-goal difference obviously changes the calculus significantly. While Mariners don’t need to be too aggressive to coast to the inter-zonal final, it’s probably unwise to simply park the bus. Let’s not forget, Odisha won all their rematches in the group stage to get to this point, and they’ve had the entire week to recuperate and strategies.

They’re not going to lie down and take their elimination, especially not in front of the home crowd, and ideally, the Yellow and Navy will look to contain their opponents’ aggression while punishing any mistakes that may come. Even just one Mariners goal would be incredibly demoralising at this point, and that’s exactly the mental state they’ll want Odisha in.

The onus of load management will also shift for this game. In the first leg, Odisha was playing on the road, on shorter rest, and several hours out of sync with their time zone. Now, Central Coast will have to do the same, albeit from a much cushier vantage point. Manager Mark Jackson’s chops in these circumstances came into play back in the zonal finals, and were key to ensuring Mariners, not Macarthur, would fly Australia’s flag the rest of the way. If he can deploy similar smarts, the players’ jobs will become that much easier.

It also helps that, at this point in the knockouts, the Mariners have multiple hot hands they can ride to the next phase. Mikael Doka has scored thrice in the last two Cup contests; Ronald Barcellos is carving out a niche as an attacking super-sub; and Josh Nisbet, now sitting at five assists, is a leading candidate to leapfrog Ahmed Jahouh for the tournament’s assists lead.


With how well the team is playing together, they don’t even need to consciously pick someone to feed the ball—they can just take the pitch and let the day’s man of the match reveal himself.

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It’s looking like a done deal on paper, but there’s a reason we play the games. If Odisha find a rhythm and take over the runback, they might well cast the Mariners as the PSG of La Remontada Asiática. Whatever happens, this is sure to be a memorable contest for all involved.