No time to party for Mariners in A-League
With the premiers' plate wrapped up, Central Coast coach Graham Arnold has challenged the Mariners to show in the A-League finals they really are a better side than Brisbane Roar this season.
In a repeat of last season, the competition powerhouses resume their ever-growing rivalry in the first leg of the major semi-final at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
While the Roar were hot favourites then after a season of domination, the tables have turned in 2011/12 after the Mariners sealed the minor premiership with a 2-1 win over Wellington on Sunday.
Arnold and his charges have barely had time to celebrate the feat and the coach has urged his players to quickly switch their focus to going one better than their heart-breaking grand-final defeat last season.
"I can only commend the players for what they've done over 27 rounds, but finals is a totally different ball game," Arnold said on Wednesday.
"We want them to refocus. It (finals) is a four-week comp against the six best teams in the league and we need to show why we are the best team in the league this year.
"It all starts on Saturday with our great rivalry with Brisbane and, fortunately, we've got 22 players that are fit. We are confident and happy and healthy."
While the Mariners thrived on their underdog status in 2010/11, Arnold denied they would be feeling the pinch of being competition frontrunners this time.
"I don't think there's more pressure - there's nothing between us," Arnold said.
"It gets down to who performs best on the day and who takes their chances.
"... Obviously they wanted to hold on to (the) plate and be (the) first team in history to go back-to-back so they'll want to come out on Saturday at home and try and make a point.
"We've proven in two years that we are definitely up there with them. We've been as consistent as they have been and it should be great game."
While Arnold has stressed the Mariners quickly moved on from the disappointment of last year's grand-final defeat, teenager striker Bernie Ibini admitted the players have not forgotten it.
"There's always going to be a little bit of disappointment there, so it gives you that bit of motivation to go that one further this time," Ibini said.
"I think it's more equal this year. With the run Brisbane had last year, it made them look a bit invincible but definitely it's a more level playing field now."
The match comes amid a heavy playing schedule for both sides due to Asian Champions League commitments.
While Arnold expressed concerns over the schedule earlier this year, he felt two recent draws in the ACL had helped play the Mariners back into form ahead of the finals.