Asia AFC Cup

Substitute Alou Kuol Seals AFC Cup Title for Mariners

Australia’s Central Coast Mariners were crowned champions of the 2023/24 AFC Cup after an 84th minute goal from Alou Kuol saw them edge out Lebanon’s Al Ahed in Sunday night’s final at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat, Oman.

Mark Jackson’s Mariners achieved a significant milestone in their AFC Cup debut, becoming only the second Australian club to clinch an AFC competition victory, following in the footsteps of the Western Sydney Wanderers who won the AFC Champions League in their tournament debut a decade earlier.

Sunday’s final not only marked the culmination of this season’s AFC Cup but also signaled the conclusion of an era, as the competition will be replaced by the three-tier AFC competitions starting from the next season: the AFC Champions League Elite, AFC Champions League 2, and AFC Challenge League.

Despite the nerves typical of a continental final,  2019 champions Al Ahed had the first promising opportunity after 25 minutes. A well-coordinated sequence of passes down the left flank created space for Mohammed Al Hallak, who delivered a cross for Lee Erwin. However, former Leeds United man Erwin’s headed attempt towards the bottom corner was brilliantly saved by Central Coast captain and goalkeeper Danny Vukovic, denying the Lebanese side an early breakthrough.

Responding swiftly, the Central Coast Mariners created an opportunity of their own within three minutes. Josh Nisbet’s incursion into the Al Ahed box from the left wing resulted in a low cross, which appeared primed for Ryan Edmondson to convert. However, Edmondson failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Miguel Di Pizio to have a shot at the far post, which was easily gathered by Mostafa Matar.

Both goalkeepers had their defenses relatively intact until halftime, with Matar comfortably saving Jacob Ferrell’s long-range effort and Vukovic dealing with Mohammad Al Marmour’s header from a tight angle after Hussein Zein’s delivery.

The second half unfolded in a similar fashion to the first, with Edmondson’s strike in the 60th minute being the only notable chance early on.

With 10 minutes remaining, Mariners’ Nesbit’s initial shot was blocked by Khalil Khamis, with the former Sri Pahang FC loanee showcased remarkable reflexes and bravery to deny Ronald Barcellos’s follow-up attempt.

In the dying moments, Kuol, who had replaced Edmondson 20 minutes earlier, broke the deadlock in the 84th minute. He capitalized on a precise through ball from Barcellos, slotting it low past goalkeeper Matar to secure the decisive goal for the Mariners.

Despite intense pressure in the added eight minutes of stoppage time, the Australian side exhibited heroic defending and executed a series of crucial tackles to preserve their lead.

Central Coast’s triumph capped off a remarkable AFC Cup journey for a side whose budget and market were relatively small compared to their A-League Men contemporaries. The Mariners had to travel a staggering distance of around 100,000 kilometers – all in economy class flights – en route to the title, with trips to Kuala Terengganu, Gianyar, Binan, Bhubaneswar, Bishkek, and Muscat, along with the relatively short journey to the Sydney suburb of Campbelltown.

Jackson’s men also recorded some memorable results and moments in their continental exploits, such as a 9-1 battering of the Philippines’ Stallion Laguna in Gosford, which was Central Coast’s biggest win in their history, a thrilling 6-3 win over Indonesia’s Bali United, also in Gosford, a tense 3-2 win after extra time over Macarthur FC in Campbelltown that sealed the Mariners’ status as ASEAN’s top dogs, and a 1-1 draw with Abdysh-Ata Kant in Bishkek that saw the Mariners’ flight back to Australia being delayed for a few days due to freak flooding at their transit point in Dubai, leading to Jackson taking out his players to an impromptu bonding hike to the mountains surrounding the Kyrgyz capital.

Central Coast’s AFC Cup triumph was their second silverware in a week, having secured this season’s A-League Men premiers on May 1st with a 2-0 home win over Adelaide United, their first premiers title since 2013. Jackson and his charges can now look forward to complete the treble as they embark on the A-League Men finals, where a two-legged clash in the semifinals against regional rivals Sydney FC awaits them.