Graham Arnold has insisted his current side are only defending champions on paper following a mass player exodus.
The record books will forever say they won the 2012/13 A-League grand-final, but Central Coast Mariners coach Graham Arnold insists his current side are only defending champions on paper following a mass player exodus.
At least seven players from the side that claimed the club's inaugural A-League championship won't be present for Saturday's grand-final replay in Gosford.
Michael McGlinchey is on international duties with New Zealand while Daniel McBreen is on loan with Shaghai SIPG until the end of the month.
Pedj Bojic (Sydney FC), Mathew Ryan (Club Brugge), Bernie Ibini-Isei (Shanghai SIPG), Oliver Bozanic (FC Luzern) and Patrick Zwaanswijk (retired) all left the club after the 2-0 grand final victory over Western Sydney in April.
"The club is the champions at the moment ... but as I said to the players the other day this team is not the champions," Arnold said at the official 2013-14 A-League season launch at Allianz Stadium on Tuesday.
"Last year's team was the champions and we have to try and embrace the challenge of being as good as last season."
Asked the significance of McBreen and McGlinchey's absence in this week's season opener, Arnold replied: "That's why for me this isn't a grand-final replay, it may be that between the two clubs but not the two teams.
"McGlinchey's a big blow, my thoughts and my feelings of Mikey are that he's in the top five players of the A-League.
"It's disappointing that you lose players to international duties in the first week of the season but the players love to go and play for their countries and you never stand in their way.
"Both of them are big losses, McBreen scored 19 or 20 goals last year and was a major factor in what we did but we get them back in the first three weeks.
"But we're never our best in the first month, the first month is about trying to build into the season and trying to pick up some points along the way."
Marcos Flores (Melbourne Victory), Matt Simon (Chunnam Dragons), Storm Roux (Perth Glory), Tom Slater (Sydney FC), Marcel Seip (VVV Venlo) and Liam Reddy (Sydney United) have all joined the Mariners in the off-season.
Arnold concedes it will take a few weeks for his team to gel but says expectations for the upcoming campaign remain high.
"I always set high standards that need to be reached and the players that I've brought in are good quality," he said.
"We haven't gone with the full quota of 23 players, we've gone with 21 because I needed to spend a bit more of the money on quality because of what we lost.
"But the confidence is high, I think we performed well in the pre-season and the new players are getting better and better by the week.
"Marcos is getting better as well and he's our X-factor as well, when we lost Tommy Rogic (to Scottish Premier League club Celtic) we didn't bring in a replacement 10 and Marcos gives us that."