CENTRAL Coast Mariners have made it to their second Grand Final with the chance to snare both the Premiership and the Championship titles after beating Newcastle Jets 3-0.
Three goals spanned across two halves of regulation time and another two of extra time secured the Mariners their most famous triumph yet – an inspired against all odds effort against their fiercest rivals in front of a near record attendance of 19,112.
Coming into the game needing at least two goals to have a chance of progressing directly to the A-League’s showpiece event in Sydney in a fortnight, the Mariners went one better and delivered three match winners for the massive Bluetongue Stadium gallery on a glorious night for the Central Coast.
First, it was Adam Kwasnik who reduced the deficit for the home side before two goals to Sasho Petrovski sealed the Mariners’ progression to their second Grand Final in three seasons – a feat unmatched by any of their A-League rivals.
The three-goal comeback would later be acknowledged by Football Manager Lawrie McKinna as the Mariners’ most memorable triumph since their first competitive match in May 2005 and he and his charges can now look forward to the ultimate day in Australian domestic football in two weeks time.
"We went out there, we didn’t need to panic, we plodded away, got the goal at a nice time in the first half, then Sasho popped up with his toe poke and what can you say about the third goal? It was world class," said McKinna after the match.
"You could go on all night talking about individuals but as a team tonight we dug in and we had a lot of boys out there struggling and we really need that one week break now, because we’d have a few boys struggling for next week.
"I would probably say as a 90 minute, or a 120 minute performance, that was probably our best performance in such a crucial game, defensively we did great, Danny had very little to do but pulled off a fantastic save in extra time.
"I think as an overall performance and the importance of that performance – that will go down, in the short history we’ve had, as our best."
Not unlike the first stanza at EnergyAustralia Stadium a fortnight ago, the Mariners were the dominant side from the opening whistle to the half time break – largely controlling proceedings all over the park.
The home side’s performance was all the more impressive given they were dealt a pair of telling early setbacks.
Firstly, defender Alvin Ceccoli was forced from the field with a toe injury, suffered after a challenge with Jets debutant Jin-Hyung Song.
Andrew Clark was Ceccoli’s replacement and within four minutes, the Central Coast was forced into a second change when Tom Pondeljak was substituted with a knee injury – paving the way for Andre Gumprecht’s introduction.
To the Mariners’ credit, their patched up eleven continued to assert an authority that was rewarded towards the end of the half.
Kwasnik, having opened his account against the Jets at Bluetongue Stadium one month earlier, produced another display of touchline wizardry that was very much in accordance with his previous goal scoring effort against Newcastle.
The Central Coast’s golden boot winner from season two danced around a trio of Jets defenders on the left wing before lighting a path to inside the penalty area, where he struck a right-footed shot that deflected off the Jets’ Tarek Elrich and ballooned over Newcastle ‘keeper Ante Covic.
The goal breathed fresh life into the Mariners’ Grand Final plans, which would gather greater momentum at a similar stage of the second half.
It was fitting that ace marksman Petrovski would deliver the goal that would restore parity on aggregate and spark unrestrained delirium throughout the massive Bluetongue Stadium gallery.
The 32-year-old striker, who has endured something of a barren goal scoring spell by the outstanding standards he has set in top flight Australian football competitions over the years, slotted home his seventh of the campaign and his first since mid-December.
In keeping with the reputation he has forged, Petrovski was in the right place at the right time to collect a firmly driven centre from Gumprecht that was deflected into his path by strike partner John Aloisi.
With the scoreboard reading an exact reverse of the result from EnergyAustralia Stadium a fortnight ago, the need for extra time was confirmed at the full-time whistle.
Indeed, to have brought the tie to this stage alone was credit to a herculean effort from the yellow and navy – surely one of their most outstanding ninety minute performances of the campaign.
For the thousands of yellow clad supporters inside the Mariners’ picturesque bay side home, however, it would soon get better as just minutes into the opening half of extra time, Petrovski underlined his quality with unquestionably his most eye-catching strike of season three.
Petrovski was released into the penalty area by midfield standout John Hutchinson and produced a delightful first touch to set up an outstanding chance that was finished with some conviction.
There were perhaps some nervy moments for the Central Coast to deal with towards the end of the second half of extra time, but as had been the case for much of the previous two hours of football, the Mariners’ strength was in their composure.
Leading from the back, captain Alex Wilkinson produced arguably his finest showing of the campaign alongside an equally outstanding Tony Vidmar, while fullbacks Nigel Boogaard and Clark showed terrific poise in adjusting to the variety of positional changes that were forced upon them.
In midfield, Mile Jedinak showcased the dominant type of performance that has earned him such praise throughout the season, while Hutchinson’s authority and calmness on the ball was most noteworthy.
Substitute Gumprecht looked as good as he has throughout season three after coming on earlier than anticipated, while Kwasnik’s goal scoring contribution, his 19th in Mariners colours, was as crucial as it has ever been.
The bookends of the Mariners’ formation also made significant contributions – goalkeeper Vukovic exceptional when called upon, striker Aloisi as hard working as ever and Petrovski spoken for by his tie defining brace.
"Ahead of tonight’s game, as a motivating factor, we remembered the way the boys felt after the first leg two weeks ago in Newcastle," said McKinna.
"The boys were gutted, but, they had the belief that we could do it and I’ve said that for the last two weeks – I believed we could do it, it was always going to be hard, but if we kept creating the chances that we had made over the last two or three weeks, we’d get goals.
"This next week will be pretty low key because we have a lot of boys with knocks, we’ll start doing normal preparation the week after when we know who we’re playing – this week will be more of a recovery week and getting everybody’s feet on the ground.
"We said in the change rooms after the game – enjoy the night, but we come back to work tomorrow."
The Mariners are now the first confirmed starters in the 2008 Grand Final, which will be played at a venue yet to be confirmed in Sydney on Sunday, 24 February.
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