Asia awaits for battle hardened Mariners

The Central Coast Mariners' most fitting AFC Champions League dress rehearsal to date has ended in a spirited 2-0 defeat to giant Chinese club and fellow continental challengers Shandong Luneng at the Shandong Provincial Sports Centre today.

The Central Coast Mariners' most fitting AFC Champions League dress rehearsal to date has ended in a spirited 2-0 defeat to giant Chinese club and fellow continental challengers Shandong Luneng at the Shandong Provincial Sports Centre today.

The most pleasant weather of the Mariners' Chinese tour to date greeted the yellow and navy at the impressive home of the reigning Chinese Super League (CSL) champions, which despite being less than a tenth full provided both teams with a colourful and noisy backdrop, against which goals from Li Jinyu and Lu Zheng sealed the home side's triumph.

Despite the score line, the Mariners' performance was one of vast improvement compared to that of last Saturday against Jiangsu Sainty and were it not for a goal line clearance, a telling save and some, at times, wasteful finishing, there could so easily have been a different end result for the yellow and navy.

Ultimately, the two-goal margin was an unjust reflection of a tightly contested fixture, which was exemplified by Shandong's second strike that came in second half stoppage time.

The Mariners will tomorrow depart Shanghai bound for the Central Coast where their AFC Champions League preparations will be fine tuned further ahead of Wednesday week's blockbuster opener against Korean FA Cup winners Pohang Steelers at Central Coast Stadium.

"Today was a reasonable performance and we-ve said that a few times in the past few weeks," said Mariners Football Manager Lawrie McKinna after the match.

"We copped a bad goal from a corner after fifteen minutes and probably dominated most of the first half.

"Second half, we totally dominated, Andrew Redmayne didn-t have a save to make - we pushed forward and had a few cleared off the line, their ‘keeper made a few good saves and then they caught us on the break with one minute to play in stoppage time.

"2-0 is flattering to them and overall our performance against the top team in China was OK."

The Mariners' starting side featured three changes from the eleven that was defeated in Kunshan two days earlier, with Pedj Bojic, Adam Kwasnik and Dylan Macallister earning starts in a remodelled and perhaps more conservative line up.

Macallister was inserted as the visitors- sole attacking focus, with fellow striker Nik Mrdja sitting deeper on the left hand side of a three-man attacking midfield contingent that also featured Adrian Caceres and Kwasnik.

Shandong, like the Mariners, will line up for the start of the AFC Champions League 2009 next week, where they have been drawn alongside FC Seoul, Gamba Osaka and Sriwijaya FC in Group F.

As the reigning CSL champions and one of China's all-time most successful club sides, Shandong came into the match as clear favourites, despite a recent 3-1 trial match loss to the Mariners' AFC Champions League Group H rivals, Tianjin Teda.

The line up that Shandong unveiled from the opening whistle - featuring no less than ten former or current internationals - underlined the hosts' desire for a positive outcome and that is what they achieved after 90 engaging minutes.

Before Jinyu's opener on twelve minutes, the Mariners so nearly seized the early ascendency when a Mrdja free kick stung the palms of Li Leilei in the Shandong goal.

Mrdja would have another chance by the end of the half after being slipped through on goal by Caceres, only to skew his right footed effort over the cross bar.

The Mariners started and finished the second half in barnstorming fashion without forcing Leilei into action on frequent occasions, though the Shandong shot stopper had team-mate and former Venezuelan international Alejandro Cichero to thank for denying an own goal in the last minute of regulation time.

Upon conceding the match sealing goal only seconds from the final whistle, the Mariners could only reflect on a solid showing that produced everything but the goal they deserved, but a performance that they will take some confidence from considering the quality of the opposition and the unfamiliar conditions the match was played out in.

"The amount of training that we-ve got in while we-ve been here and the game time that everyone has gotten - this trip has been invaluable," said McKinna.

"Everybody has got a lot out of the trip, which stands us in good stead for the game against Pohang.

"We-re looking forward to that game and looking forward to getting back to the Central Coast and getting a victory in front of our home fans.

"We-re not far away from our best form, we know that we-ve got room for improvement - it-s just getting that one goal and going on with it and I-m sure that things will turn around for us."

The Mariners will next be in action in a competitive fixture for the kick off of the AFC Champions League 2009 at Central Coast Stadium against Korean FA Cup winners Pohang Steelers on Wednesday, 11 March. Kick off is at 8pm.

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Match Details

Central Coast Mariners 30. Andrew Redmayne (gk), 3. Shane Huke (22. Nick Rizzo 46'), 4. Pedj Bojic, 9. Nik Mrdja (7. John Hutchinson 46'), 10. Adrian Caceres, 11. Dylan Macallister, 15. Andrew Clark (5. Bradley Porter 46'), 16. Nigel Boogaard (13. Paul O'Grady 62'), 17. Matthew Osman (21. Ahmad Elrich 66'), 18. Alex Wilkinson, 23. Adam Kwasnik (12. Greg Owens 62')

Yellow Cards Elrich 74', Bojic 79', Macallister 80' Red Cards None Goals None