It’s Macarthur & the Mariners in an all A-League AFC Cup ASEAN Final – who takes the title (and the cash)?

This Thursday night Campbelltown Sports Stadium plays host to one of the most historic, high-stakes prizefights in all of Australian soccer. For the first time ever, two A-League Men’s clubs will meet in continental competition when Macarthur hosts Central Coast Mariners in the AFC Cup ASEAN zonal final.

Whoever emerges victorious will move on to the Inter Zone Semi Finals against India’s Odisha FC, sole control of Australia’s club coefficient, and a cash prize of over $150,000.

With so much on the line, let’s examine how these two sides made it to this point and how they match up.

Macarthur: Stopping Sabah’s stampede

Macarthur were always favorites to win their semi final against Malaysia’s Sabah, especially off the heels of a nail-biting road win over Melbourne Victory a few days prior, but it’s arguable they won this one on the lineup sheet.

Macarthur FC players celebrate a goal with fans. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Saddil Ramdani was a key reason Sabah FC even made it to this stage, with his six assists putting him in a tie atop the tournament table. He was out of the game with a muscle injury just days before the game, keeping him from even making the trip to Australia. Without their star playmaker, the Rhinos’ attack predictably suffered and they ended up amassing a fair few yellow cards in their attempt to roughhouse their way to parity.

However, fate still demanded a winger step up and take control of the game and Jed Drew gladly answered the call, starting with an incisive assist to Ulises Dávila giving Macarthur the edge going into halftime. The captain returned the favor the moment the second half began, making a short pass in the Bulls’ end that Drew took to the house, brilliantly evading multiple Rhinos on his way to the decisive strike.

Just for good measure, Drew crushed any away fans’ remaining hopes in the 80th minute with a second goal thanks in part to Bernardo Oliviera’s first assist as a Macarthur man. With that, Drew notched his first professional brace, and the Bulls secured home field advantage for the zonal final.

Mariners: Dethroning Phnom Penh’s Crown

It’s hard to believe in hindsight, but there was an argument Australia’s reigning champions looked vulnerable heading into their zonal semifinal. The Mariners were coming off an embarrassing performance against Sydney FC, who walked right into Gosford and punched the Coasties in the mouth.

Central Coast’s Miguel Di Pizio scores his first A-League goal. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

They’d also shipped Marco Púlio to Kyoto Sanga in the winter transfer window and considering the Brazilian scored a tournament leading eight goals in the group stage, that wasn’t going to be an easy absence to fill.

We also can’t forget that their opponents, Cambodian champions Phnom Penh Crown, bested Macarthur in the first of their two group stage meetings and could still call on Shintaro Shimizu, whose seven goals put him right behind Púlio in the Cup’s Golden Boot race. While the overall odds were still in the Mariners’ favour, an upset wouldn’t have been the craziest bet to place.

To Crown’s credit, they did keep things close for the first hour, refusing to crumble in the face of Jing Reec’s theatrical opening goal in the 37th minute. But with a single substitution in the 60th minute, the match went from a competitive contest to a welcoming party for newly-minted Mariner Ryan Edmondson. Once he subbed in, the Aberdeen alumnus seized total control, constantly creating and capitalising on opportunities until he secured his first career hat trick in stoppage time. No one did more to knock the crown off Phnom Penh’s heads than Edmonson that night, and he’ll no doubt look to replicate it if given the chance.

Thursday Thunder: The keys to ASEAN supremacy

At this point, Macarthur have a strong sense of who they are and what they’re about. They’ve shown they can win ugly, pretty, or anywhere in between. The primary problem to solve will be in defense – while they’ve posted five clean sheets in continental play, they’ve only done so three times in the A-League and their +2 league goal differential is the lowest among teams currently sitting in playoff position. While Filip Kurto has brought his share of heroics in net, Bulls fans would probably prefer if the back line saved Kurto that kind of trouble here.

Frenchman Valere Germain of Macarthur FC celebrates a goal. (Photo by Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, CCM have done a pretty good job adjusting to life without Marco Púlio, maintaining strong form leading up to this confrontation. The main issue will be avoiding the dreaded F-word; fatigue. The Mariners started February playing road games in Adelaide and Wellington 48 hours apart and haven’t had a full week between matches since.

After they attend to this AFC Cup business, they’ll have to play Melbourne Victory in Melbourne on another two-day turnaround. Coach Mark Jackson will have to be extremely careful how he selects his squad and balances the team’s continental and domestic ambitions, as a failure to thread that needle could cost the team on both fronts.

There’s no shortage of parallels in how these two New South Wales sides reached this point. They both won their groups with relative ease, they’ve both seen 15 different players notch a goal and/or assist in this competition and they both punched their tickets to the ASEAN Zonal final off the strength of a career-best performance from one of their forwards. Even their combined A-League and AFC Cup winning percentages for this season sit at an identical .660, which should tell you how evenly-matched these two squads are.

Whoever you think has the edge, we’re in for an electrifying showdown.

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