Mariners impress the rest of Asia

It is fitting that the Mariners were crowned champions because this year’s AFC Champions League participants featured in the biggest game in Asia on the weekend.

It is fitting that the Central Coast Mariners were crowned A-League champions because this year-s AFC Champions League participants featured in the biggest game in Asia on the weekend.

Al Ain might have been crowned champions of the United Arab Emirates, Omiya Ardija may have beaten Urawa Reds in the Saitama derby, Beijing Guoan and Guangzhou Evergrande certainly pulled big crowds in China and Jong Tae-Se may have rattled home a hat-trick for Suwon.

Yet when it came to the largest attendance, the most vocal supporters and some of the most absorbing football played anywhere on the continent, the A-League grand final was a showpiece event worthy of gracing any Asian highlight reel.

That-s something Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop would do well to remind the Asian Football Confederation of, because in times gone by the A-League hasn-t always received the respect it deserves from the AFC.

It would have been nothing short of a travesty if the Mariners failed to join Western Sydney Wanderers in the next edition of the Champions League, so it-s a relief to have seen sanity prevail at AFC headquarters in restoring Australia-s ACL spots back to two and a half for next season.

And given that the Mariners have ably represented Australia in this year-s ACL, they duly deserve another shot at next year-s competition.

The Gosford outfit certainly deserved to lift their first A-League title at the fourth attempt after largely outplaying the Wanderers in front of a partisan crowd at Allianz Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

The Wanderers will point to at least three penalty shouts - with some merit - as key reasons for their defeat, but the truth is Graham Arnold-s side largely outplayed the A-League newcomers in the showpiece event.

Key to their success was marking Japanese marquee man Shinji Ono out of the game and when it came to taking their chances, the Mariners were equally clinical in front of goal.

In a season in which young gun Tom Rogic departed midway through the campaign to Celtic, perhaps it was fitting that it was veterans Patrick Zwaanswijk and Daniel McBreen who got the Wanderers over the line. McBreen finished with a remarkable 19 goals for the season - not a bad haul for a player set to turn 36 during the week.

For comparison-s sake, the man who scored a hat-trick for Al Ain as they wrapped up the UAE championship - free-scoring Ghana international Asamoah Gyan - is just 27.

Ironically, one of Al Ain-s major rivals Al Shabab recently complained about their fixture list given their gruelling schedule of domestic fixtures combined with ACL commitments.

“We have the league and Champions League while we're also preparing for the semi-final of the President's Cup,” Shabab-s veteran Brazilan coach Marcos Paqueta told newspaper The National.

“But unfortunately we have to travel to Uzbekistan to play and then come back a day before we have to play another important match,” he added.

It-s a feeling the Mariners know all too well and far from celebrating their grand final win, they were straight on a flight to take on the might of Suwon in a must-win ACL game for both sides.

The Bluewings are one of the best-resourced clubs in South Korea, yet the Mariners themselves have proved that it doesn-t take unlimited financial resources to develop an effective football team.

The next step not only for Arnold-s side but Australian clubs in general, is success on the continental stage.

In the meantime though, FFA would be well entitled to point out that for all the AFC-s points-based criteria, the biggest game to take place in front of a packed stadium and a significant television audience over the weekend was not played in the UAE, Japan, China or anywhere else in Asia.

It was played right here in our very own backyard.