Central Coast Mariners have triumphed over Western United in a stirring come-from-behind 4-2 win at Central Coast Stadium on Saturday.
It was an open start to the game, with the home side just shading the early salvos. Central Coast looked to spring Michael Ruhs early and often and there was also the ever-present threat that is Jason Cummings troubling the Western defence.
Cummings had the ball in Jamie Young’s net within the first 10 minutes but the linesman’s flag denied the Mariners forward the opening goal of the evening.
A golden chance then fell Samuel Silvera’s way after some good play from Josh Nisbet down the left-hand side, but the live wire completely scuffed his shot.
Nick Montgomery’s men began to take control, depriving United of possession and making them chase in the warm conditions.
Shots continued to fly in from the Mariners but they were unable to make their dominance count on the scoreboard.
Montgomery must have been apoplectic then when the visitors opened the scoring in the 17th minute through Nicolas Milanovic.
Played through down the left, Connor Pain’s deflect cutback found Milanovic all on his own and the 20-year-old finished past the helpless Danny Vukovic.
The goal came against the run of play, and was about as undeserved as it could be. It was Western’s very first chance of the game and a poor one for Central Coast to concede.
It got even worse for the home fans when Pain opened up his body and unleashed a perfect curling side-footed strike past Vukovic to double his side’s advantage.
The Mariners’ early dominance began to seem like a distant memory as everyone in Central Coast Stadium must have been wondering what had just happened to their side.
Cummings had another good chance late in the first half after Young spilled a Central Coast shot but the Socceroo couldn’t get much on his strike, allowing Young to clean up.
Down 2-0 at the break, it would need to be a huge half-time speech from Montgomery to turn this one around.
The Mariners boss went to his bench with a triple change, bringing Garang Kuol, Jacob Farrell and Paul Ayongo on to inject some energy into his side.
Kuol immediately made a difference, beating multiple players with a dashing run before the intervention of Nikolai Topor-Stanley.
The experienced defender was first given a yellow card but after checking his decision on the pitch-side video screen, referee Stephen Lucas upgraded Topor-Stanley’s booking to a red card.
Replays showed he had his studs raised and Lucas was well within his rights to send the big centre-half for an early shower.
The door began to creak open for the Mariners, and the home side thought they were back in the game through Cummings. VAR picked up that there were two balls on the pitch in the build-up, however, meaning the goal was chalked off in a strange moment.
Central Coast were finally able to put one in the back of the net legally – no prizes for guessing it was Cummings with one of the easier goals of his career.
Down to 10 men, United didn’t show much attacking impetus and began to put as many behind the ball as they could.
With 20 minutes to go, the home fans began to sense there was more coming from their team.
It seemed inevitable the equaliser was coming, and in the 74th minute Beni Nkololo obliged.
Now, the pressure was being heavily applied by the Mariners and Western United were just managing to hold on.
Enter Jacob Farrell, the local boy completing the comeback with a strong header after a set-piece had been half-cleared by United. It was bedlam at Central Coast Stadium.
Ayongo then put the icing on the cake with a late goal, making Montgomery look like Pep Guardiola with his changes as three subs scored and Kuol was instrumental in the second half.
Central Coast Mariners 4 (Cummings 67′, Nkololo 74′, Farrell 78′, Ayongo 88′)
Western United 2 (Milanovic 17′, Pain 28′)
Can stirring comeback kick-start Mariners’ campaign?
After some handy but not earth shattering moves in the off-season, finals football must have been a realistic target for the Mariners in 2022-23.
It was looking pretty grim at 2-0 down this evening, but the stirring come-from-behind win could just be enough to galvanise the side and help them make the most of Garang Kuol’s remaining time in Gosford.
A trip to the increasingly fortress-like CommBank Stadium awaits Central Coast, before they round out their pre-World Cup fixtures by hosting Macarthur and the rescheduled F3 Derby. We’ll know more about their top-six aspirations in a few weeks’ time.
Spring heat hits hard
This might be harsh on the APL, but here goes anyway. As the mercury rises these earlier kick-offs are only going to result in players conserving energy and managers making adjustments to game plans. These athletes are just not fit enough to go full throttle in mid or late-afternoon heat.
It wasn’t so much a problem in the second half as the sun disappeared behind the main grandstand, but the sedate opening stanza was hardly box office viewing.
This match was bad enough, but what about the 3pm game at Moreton Daily stadium where it was more than 30C?
What’s the answer? Well, it’s too late for this season most likely but could the simultaneous evening kick-offs of 2021-22 make their return at some point? Whether or not they boosted Paramount subscriptions last season is unproven but what is proven is the standard of play degrades significantly in the earlier starts.
Champions still missing stars
It’s pretty obvious that United are dearly missing talismans Alessandro Diamanti and Aleksandar Prijović to start the new season.
Without Diamanti it seems there’s no one capable of consistently unlocking opposition defences, and when the odd chance does come, Dylan Wenzel Halls isn’t clinical enough. Granted, they scored two goals today but it could’ve been even more with the dynamic duo on the pitch.
It’s three valuable away points for Aloisi’s side and suddenly things aren’t looking so grim in western Melbourne, but the return of Dia and Prijović can’t come soon enough.
The champions will also be without Topor-Stanley for next week after the red card, and could it be even more than the standard one-week ban? The veteran centre-half’s studs were raised, and he put Garang Kuol in some danger lunging in like that.