Chinese Super League heavyweights Guangzhou Evergrande proved too good for the A-League champions in Gosford on Wednesday.
|By HAMISH NEAL at BLUETONGUE
The Central Coast Mariners face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League after falling 2-1 at home to a slick performance from Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande.
Coming off consecutive 3-0 wins in the Chinese Super League, the Marcello Lippi-coached side were opened up early when young tyros Berni Ibini and Mitchell Duke combined as the Mariners sprung out of the gates.
Duke's opener earned the hosts the lead with a deflected strike as early as the seventh minute of the game on Wednesday, beating Zeng Cheng in the Evergrande goal.
In the 28th minute Zhi Zheng deflected a ball into the path of Lucas Barrios for the Paraguayan international to equalise before Muriqui took one of his multiple second-half chances to secure the win with the bonus of two critical away goals.
Entering the knockout phase in the ACL for the first time in their history, the Mariners were missing defender Trent Sainsbury, who injured a hamstring in the recent Socceroos camp. He was replaced by Zac Anderson.
The Southern China Tigers were at full strength, with Elkeson the only key player missing as the prolific Brazilian is not included in their eligible players list for the ACL.
The fixture got off to a comical start when Chinese international Gao Lin had the wrong pair of white socks over the top of the regulation red and Lippi was remonstrating with the officials to delay the start of the game.
After an early rush at goal in the opening minute, when the Mariners had the man advantage, Duke got the reward six minutes later.
Having dominated the early play, the Mariners conceded after Barrios took advantage of Zheng's miscue to give the Chinese champions a crucial away goal.
Dario Conca was influential for the visitors and had some long-range attempts in the first half, while Mariners defender Joshua Rose had two strikes late in the half which were to no avail.
Mariners veteran Daniel McBreen's powerful shot was saved during a frenetic start to the second stanza, which also saw Mat Ryan tip a scissor kick attempt from Gao over the crossbar.
The expansive game continued as the half wore on, with chances to both sides.
Graham Arnold's men threatened at corners during the second half before, in the 71st minute, Ryan was forced into action when he shuffled away a Gao shot which was centimetres away from rolling into Ryan's right-hand corner after a goal-mouth scramble.
Five minutes later, Brazilian Muriqui sealed the game for the men in red after he finished Gao's flick-on, which split the Mariners defence.
Both sides kept up the intensity all the way to the end, with Duke forcing a save from Zeng in the dying stages, as the visitors peppered the A-League champions' goal.
The return leg will be next Wednesday at the 60,000-seat Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou.