The youthful Mariners appeared destined for three points until a late rally from hosts Guizhou left the visiting A-League team empty-handed
|By JAMES RANSON
The Central Coast Mariners surrendered a one-goal advantage to go down 2-1 to Guizhou Renhe in the AFC Champions League on Tuesday with a largely second-string side.
Mitchell Duke's first-half penalty looked to have sealed a crucial, and perhaps unexpected, three points for the Mariners, until two quality goals inside two minutes lifted under-fire Guizhou to a vital win.
Zlatan Muslimovic lifted spirits among the frustrated hosts when he fired into the far corner on 84 minutes and substitute Qu Bo completed the turnaround with the winner from a tight angle two minutes later.
The win lifts Guizhou off the foot of the table and level with the Mariners on four points in Group H, six behind leaders Kashiwa Reysol, who were held to a goalless draw by Suwon Bluewings [three points].
With an eye on Sunday's A-League semi-final showdown with Melbourne Victory, Mariners coach Graham Arnold left a host of first team players in Australia for the trip to China.
That meant quartet Oliver Bozanic, Brent Griffiths, Zac Anderson and Anthony Caceres were the only survivors from the side that defeated Melbourne Heart 2-1 in their last A-League match, with the average age of Arnold's starting side 23.
Without leading scorer Daniel McBreen, Duke spearheaded the Mariners attack with support from Nick Fitzgerald, but it was Guizhou who made the early running.
Yu Hai was guilty of spurning a pair of chances for the home side just over a quarter-of-an-hour in.
The midfielder could not keep down a cross when clear on the edge of the six-yard box and moments later dragged another effort just past the post.
The youthful Mariners took a while to ease their way into the game but, after a period of decent possession, went ahead from the penalty spot.
From a flighted ball in, Fitzgerald went down under minimal contact from Rao Weihui and Duke crept his unconvincing spot kick just under the goalkeeper.
Guizhou, who were reportedly in turmoil dealing with internal issues heading into the clash, had coach Gong Lei sent to the stands in the second half as it all appeared to be falling apart for the Chinese Super League side.
Former Manchester City defender Sun Jihai cast a growing over the influence over the game and was at the heart of Guizhou's best move thus far.
The right-back cut inboard after a neat one-two, but could not quite curl his left-foot shot inside the post.
Bernie Ibini came on after the hour mark for the Mariners and - after a mazy run - found Duke, whose attempt at a second was well blocked.
Guizhou continued to throw bodies forward with all absence of structure but found a way back in via two of their most dangerous players.
Muslimovic cut inside effortlessly and fired into the far corner to make it 1-1, before fellow Bosnian Zvjezdan Misimovic worked an opening on the edge of the box with a quick turn of foot.
His superb left-foot effort caught the post and left Qu with plenty to do, but the substitute picked his spot beautifully to lash the rebound into the roof of the net from an acute angle for the winner.