|By GOAL AUSTRALIA
Central Coast Mariners coach Graham Arnold believes his inexperienced squad had a lesson to learn after coughing up a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 to Guizhou Renhe in the AFC Champions League on Tuesday.
But Arnold remained proud of his side, stating that - bar the game's final stages - the Mariners had "no problem with Guizhou at all".
With just two players over the age of 25 in the first XI, the Mariners appeared destined for a valuable three points after striker Mitchell Duke gave them the lead at Guizhou's Guiyang Olympic Sports Centre from the penalty spot on 42 minutes.
Duke and substitute striker Bernie Ibini had second-half chances to seal the result for the visitors, only for Zlatan Muslimovic and Qu Bo to score for the Chinese Super League club after 83 and 85 minutes respectively.
The result keeps Group H wide open, with the Mariners third and trailing second-placed Guizhou on goal difference.
Despite letting the lead slip in China, Arnold had plenty of praise for his young side.
"I was very, very happy with my team," Arnold said. "Their average age was 23, I left seven of our best players at home and it was only in the last ten minutes because of fatigue that Guizhou ended up getting on top of us.
"Guizhou were dangerous in the last ten minutes, but the in the first 80 minutes they didn't have a shot on goal.
"You expect a big money player like Muslimovic to make a difference to a match, and that's what he and his fellow Bosnian [Zvjezdan] Misimovic did tonight.
"Our young players will benefit from this experience. Tonight they have learnt that in international football it is critical that you take your chances and remain focused on nullifying the threat of important players like Muslimovic, Misimovic, Sun Jihai and Qu Bo.
"But really we had no problem with Guizhou at all. I thought they were very average for the first 80 minutes. It was only our young boys that got fatigued… otherwise the result would have been different."
The Mariners immediately swing their attentions to Sunday's sudden-death semi-final with Melbourne Victory at Gosford, but have a gruelling 24-hour trip ahead of them before arriving back in Australia.