AFC Cup – Odisha Readies for Central Coast Mariners Challenge

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Odisha FC will take on the Central Coast Mariners in the 2023-24 AFC Cup Inter-zone play-off semi-final. The two-legged tie will take place on March 7th and 14th respectively, with the winner advancing to the Inter-zone play-off final.  

Odisha

What’s at Stake for Odisha

Sergio Lobera, a two-time ISL-winning head coach, has achieved remarkable success with Odisha FC in his debut season, elevating them from a mid-table position to genuine title contenders. However, their fortunes seem to be unraveling at a critical juncture of the season.

In late January, Odisha fell short against East Bengal in the Kalinga Super Cup final, missing out on the season’s first silverware opportunity. Last Sunday, their 13-game unbeaten streak in the ISL was halted as they dropped points against 10th-placed Chennaiyin FC. With only four regular-season games remaining, any loss could significantly dent Odisha’s aspirations of clinching the ISL title for the first time in the club’s history. These possible setbacks underscore the importance of the AFC Cup for the Kalinga Warriors.

Following the team’s unexpected Super Cup victory last season, which secured Odisha’s qualification for the 2023-24 AFC Cup, the ownership made substantial investments in the squad during the summer. Players such as Mourtada Fall, Roy Krishna, and Ahmed Jahouh were recruited, while Diego Maurício, the 2022-23 ISL Golden Boot winner, was retained. These acquisitions have paid dividends for Odisha this season, with each player making significant contributions to the team’s success. Nonetheless, ending the 2023-24 season without a trophy would not be an acceptable outcome for Odisha. Therefore, it is imperative for the Kalinga Warriors to prolong their AFC Cup journey.

Road to the Knockouts

Odisha FC, making their debut in the AFC Cup, advanced to this stage after finishing at the top of Group D with twelve points. The Kalinga Warriors initially struggled, suffering defeats in their first two group matches, including a 4-0 loss to Mohun Bagan. However, under the guidance of Sergio Lobera, they bounced back strongly with four consecutive victories, securing their spot in the knockout phase.

Odisha

The Central Coast Mariners and the Kalinga Warriors share many similarities. Both teams are making their debut in the AFC Cup. However, this isn’t due to a lack of ability. Historically, top Australian clubs participated in the AFC Champions League rather than the AFC Cup. The Mariners, based in Gosford, Australia, however, have been absent from Asian competition since 2015 when they exited the AFC Champions League during the qualifying play-off. Therefore, while not novices, the Mariners might be considered out of practice.

Similar to Odisha, the Mariners also topped their group. However, their journey involved overcoming two knockout rounds before reaching the Inter-zone semi-final. They defeated Pnom Penh Crown 4-0 in the ASEAN zone semi-final and Australian counterparts Macarthur 3-2 in the zonal final. The latter victory was dramatic, with three goals scored during extra-time, including the winning goal in the 120th minute. Despite potentially being exhausted from the additional fixtures, the Mariners are likely to welcome Odisha with high spirits.

Recent Performances

Despite sitting at the top of the table, Odisha has only managed two wins in their last five games. They haven’t suffered many defeats either, with only two losses across all competitions since late October. However, the two recent defeats – Sunday’s loss to Chennaiyin and the Super Cup final defeat to East Bengal – are concerning.

Odisha has dropped points in three of their last five matches, but Lobera can find comfort in his team’s commitment to his style of football. The Kalinga Warriors continue to exhibit confidence, maintaining possession and creating numerous scoring opportunities. Nonetheless, the coach will be displeased with the team’s recent tendency to concede early goals.

The Central Coast Mariners are in fine form, occupying the second position in the A-League table, just three points behind the Wellington Phoenix. They seek to extend their five-match winning streak against Odisha on Thursday. Their latest triumph occurred in the F3 Derby on Saturday against nearby rivals Newcastle Jets, secured by Joshua Nisbet’s lone second-half goal, earning them all three points. Remarkably, the Mariners’ last three league victories have all ended with a 1-0 scoreline.

Central Coast Mariners’ Team Profile

The Mariners, established in 2004, rank as the fourth most successful team in the A-League, boasting two championships and two premierships. Their latest championship victory occurred in 2023, following their second-place finish in that year’s regular season, securing them a spot in the current edition’s AFC Cup.

Under the leadership of English manager Mark Jackson, the Mariners excel at generating opportunities through their trademark electric counterattacks. However, they exhibit adaptability and can assert control over possession against weaker opponents, as evidenced in their triumph against the Jets.

While the team typically employs a 4-4-2 formation, Jackson experimented with a 5-back system against Melbourne Victory a few weeks ago. In their most recent match, Nisbet operated as one of the two center-forwards, where the diminutive 24-year-old scored his first goal of the season.

The Mariners’ defense, which has conceded the second fewest goals in the A-League this season, has been exceptionally tight as of late. Their defense remained unbreached for 340 minutes of play since their last defeat to Sydney FC on February 10th. Although Macarthur managed to breach the Mariners’ defense twice in the AFC Cup Zonal Final, it was no easy feat.

Key Players for the Mariners

Joshua Nisbet, a creative midfielder known for his ability to find himself in threatening positions near the goal, will be the player to keep an eye on. He currently shares the lead in assists in the A-League this season with six.

Odisha’s fullbacks will also need to closely monitor Ángel Quiñones, the Mariners’ top scorer. The 23-year-old Colombian winger has tallied eleven goals and three assists, accounting for 40% of his team’s total league goals.

Odisha
Central Coast Mariners are second in the league

On the defensive end, the Mariners boast a seasoned goalkeeper in Danny Vukovic. The former Australian international had four years with Belgian Pro League side Genk and a year in the Eredivisie with NEC Nijmegen before returning to Gosford for his second stint with the Mariners. He and his backline face a significant challenge against Odisha, tasked with containing former Johnny Warren Medal winner Roy Krishna and Diego Maurício, who currently rank first and third, respectively, in the ISL Golden Boot race.

Lobera’s Approach to the Game

During the Super Cup Final, Odisha conceded the winning goal after giving the ball away while attempting to build from the back in the 111th minute of extra time. However, in an interview with ESPN, Lobera praised his players for adhering to his philosophy.

We reached the [Super Cup] final after winning against FC Goa and Mumbai City. One mistake is possible, but I tell my players to continue playing this way. Because this is the only way to improve. If you’re scared of mistakes and thinking about future actions during the game, you’re very far from achieving something important for the team.

Odisha
Sergio Lobera’s men will have a tough task on hand tomorrow

While the Central Coast Mariners pose a serious challenge, Lobera is unlikely to alter his tactics. If the Kalinga Warriors can dominate possession, the Mariners may opt to sit back and focus on counterattacks – their preferred strategy.

Lobera also expressed frustration over the ISL’s refusal to reschedule Odisha’s recent match against Chennaiyin to a 5 PM kickoff on the same day. If the league had agreed to his request, Lobera’s team could have traveled to Australia a day earlier, allowing for more time to adjust and train in the new conditions. The Spaniard is concerned that his team might struggle with travel fatigue given the current circumstances.

The jet lag when we reach Australia means that we can just train once before the game and we could be very tired. We are not only representing the club in the AFC competition, but we are also representing India. So the situation is difficult to understand.

Nonetheless, the Australian team will also have to deal with jet lag during the return leg, so it may ultimately come down to which team handles it better.

It will be interesting to see how this battle unfolds between two teams whose focus is split between a domestic title and maiden Asian glory. Odisha has showcased their prowess against Indian and South Asian opponents but hasn’t faced other continental teams yet. If the Kalinga Warriors manage to defeat their Australian challengers, they’ll join Dempo (2008), East Bengal (2013), and BFC (2016, 2017) as the fourth Indian club to reach the AFC Cup semi-finals.

Nevertheless, this fixture is poised to be Odisha’s toughest challenge in their ten-year history. The Kalinga Warriors will face a daunting task when they travel Down Under for the first leg on Thursday, March 7th.


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Sriram Chidambaram
Sriram Chidambaramhttp://iftwc.com
A sports tragic, whose obsession percolates into the obscure world of Indian Football. My affiliations lie with the Blue Tigers, BFC, Servette, and Chelsea (in that order).

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