Mariners eye ACL final 16 spot
The Central Coast Mariners are about to find out if a dream season can get even better.
With a maiden A-League title and a first away win in the Asian Champions League (ACL) already in the bag, the Mariners can reach the knock-out stages of the continental competition for the first time when they host Japan's Kashiwa Reysol in Gosford on Tuesday.
Fans and commentators might forgive the players if they relax after the heroics of a comprehensive 2-0 A-League grand final win over Western Sydney Wanderers and the 1-0 victory over Suwon Bluewings in South Korea just 48 hours later.
But manager Graham Arnold is having none of it.
"We had three goals at the start of the season: to try to win the premiership again, to win the grand final and to reach the last 16 of the Asian Champions League," Arnold said.
"I don't let up on the boys. For me, it's as big as the finals series.
"It's an occasion that doesn't come to you often in your football life."
The reward of progress could be a meeting with China's Guangzhou Evergrande and former World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi.
"Having Marcello Lippi here in Gosford, no doubt he would capture the imagination of the fans like (Alessandro) Del Piero has on the playing side," Arnold said.
"It would be a huge thing for the game here in Australia."
Central Coast need to beat Kashiwa Reysol to be sure of becoming only the third Australian club to reach the knock-out stages.
But even a draw or defeat could be enough if Guizhou Renhe fail to beat Suwon in the other match.
"We want to extend our season by one month," Arnold said.
"We don't want to be training down next week and have to be looking at the last-16 games ... we want to be part of that. We're desperate to be part of that."
Arnold has a fully-fit squad to choose from as the Mariners aim for a first win over a Japanese side in Gosford, having lost 5-0 to Kawasaki Frontale in 2009 and drawn 1-1 with Nagoya Grampus last year.
Captain John Hutchinson and midfielder Brent Griffiths are available after serving one-game suspensions and Arnold said striker Daniel McBreen would be fine to play despite a virus.
"After the hectic week last week, they had a few days off to recover and rest and they looked fantastic today in training," Arnold said.
"There were a lot of smiles thanks to the grand final win."
The Mariners are hoping to extend a five-game unbeaten home streak in the ACL against a side that beat them 3-1 in March but have nothing to play for having already wrapped up first place in Group H.
The holders of Japan's Emperor Cup are on a low ebb after a 4-0 home defeat that left them 11th in the J-League with 10 points from eight matches, hours after the Mariners were acclaimed by celebrating fans at an A-League victory parade through the streets of Gosford.
"The defeat did lead to questions but, ultimately, the answer is we must just play better and create more opportunities," Kashiwa Reysol coach Nelsinho Baptista said.