No rest for Mariners despite week off
Rarely has a break felt so little like one for the Central Coast Mariners.
After wrapping up second place in the A-League, the Mariners have a two-week wait until the play-off semi-finals.
But there's no time to rest, with the first of two back-to-back games against Chinese side Guizhou Renhe that will go a long way to determining whether Graham Arnold's side makes it past the Asian Champions League group stage for the first time.
Arnold has performed an admirable balancing act over the past few weeks, rotating the squad to rest tiring players at the business end of a gruelling A-League season while securing three straight wins to stay in contention for top spot until the final round.
That balancing act is about to get even finer, with Wednesday's match at Bluetongue Stadium crucial both in terms of ACL progress and maintaining form for an April 14 return to domestic action.
After resting eight players for Saturday's 2-1 win over Melbourne Heart, Arnold said he will field his strongest possible side against Guizhou.
"We all know what an important seven days this is for us," Arnold said on Tuesday.
"The fact we've got the weekend off from the A-League, it was important we made the top two to keep our weekend free and we did that quite convincingly so we've got our sole focus on tomorrow night."
Wednesday's match is shaping as a must-win game for Arnold's charges.
The Mariners and Guizhou Renhe are tied at the foot of the standings with just a solitary point each from their opening two games and in danger of being cut adrift over the next two matches.
"Last year I thought we had a successful (ACL) campaign," Arnold said.
"This year we want to be in the same position. We want to be in a position to reach the last 16."
Having watched his team fail to deal with Leandro Domingues in a 3-1 loss to Kashiwa Reysol three weeks ago, Arnold has spelled out to his side the importance of properly handling another talented No.10.
Captain John Hutchinson, who had a stint playing in China, will be detailed to mark former Wolfsburg and Galatasaray midfielder Zvjezdan Misimovic.
"He's a hell of a footballer and he's got a great pedigree," Arnold said.
"Him and (Zlatan) Muslimovic, the No.9 and central striker, make two Bosnian internationals and they've obviously got a very good combination and a good understanding.
"We focus 75 per cent on ourselves and 25 per cent on the opposition and he was the main focus of that."
Guizhou can also call upon former Manchester City defender Sun Jihai.
Also in the squad is Jonas Salley, a former Sydney FC, Adelaide United and Gold Coast United player and friend of Hutchinson.
"He's a good friend of mine," Salley said.
"He was a teammate but during the game we're enemies. We want to win. It's going to be like a big derby."