Sometimes you walk away from a soccer ground wondering why you bothered to give up your hard earned dollars. The Asian Champions League Round of 16 match between Central Coast Mariners and Guangzhou Evergrande, was NOT one of those occasions.
The Chinese giants appeared to have underestimated their Australian opponents when the Mariners went ahead in the 7th minute. It was youngster Mitchell Duke whose lunging effort was redirected to give the Mariners a shock lead. It had the 4000 odd travelling Guangzhou fans gasping for oxygen. This wasn’t the plan. But the team from Gosford continued their marauding raids down the flanks, particularly the left with Josh Rose contributing the most.
The inevitable momentum swing occurred in the 27th minute when Paraguayan international Barrios levelled the scores. The goal resulted after a breakaway, with midfielder Conca feeding the ball to the irrepressible Muriqui on the left. The Brazilian looked to send to the ball into the box, but the resulting scramble saw the ball land at the feet of Barrios. He buried a bouncing volley into Matt Ryan’s net. The game had changed and Zac Anderson’s bullying of Barrios off the ball was nullified.
The second half was dominated by Guangzhou as the cavalry charged. International striker Gao Lin had the crowd on their feet with a bicycle kick attempt on goal. Ryan tipped it over, much to the disappointment of the Guangzhou fans. They were rabid! The ‘red tide’ would keep rising though. Right fullback Zhang Linpeng was the Chinese version of the ‘Duracell rabbit’. He was up and down the right wing all match and his shimmy on the edge of the box to round Mariners defender Josh Rose was worth the entry fee. Soon we were adding Muriqui’s back-heeled shot to the highlights reel, as it glanced off the upright in the 71st minute.
It appeared the Mariners had decided the only way to muffle the Guangzhou attack was to play a high line and cramp the midfield. A risky tactic which eventually saw Muriqui punish the home team. A high ball was lofted into the centre of the field, and Barrios’s poor first touch presented the ball in the path of Muriqui. The Brazilian took one touch and then unleashed. It was 2-1 in the 76th minute, and a mountain for the Mariners to climb. Nevertheless, the Mariners fans would see some more goal mouth action with the Guangzhou keeper forced to make an almost unsighted save late in regulation time.
The 2-1 first leg sees Guangzhou in a powerful position heading back to China. Next week’s second leg will be played at Tianhe Stadium, and the Mariners can expect a sea of red to greet them. Guangzhou regularly attract crowds of 40,000, but their are no guarantees in soccer, and while the Mariners were beaten at home, they certainly acquitted themselves well. Working in the Mariners favour is Guangzhou’s cut and thrust style. They will definitely get some opportunities to score in China, but their execution will need to be spot on.