With A-League finals on the horizon, Central Coast must travel half a world away to begin it’s dream of AFC Cup final spot


The A-League Men’s postseason looms large on the horizon for many Australian football fans, but this Wednesday night, the Central Coast Mariners will pursue an even greater ambition.

After eliminating three teams from three different countries, they now find themselves on the doorstep of the AFC Cup final.

However, in order to challenge for that continental crown, they’ll have to play one more aggregate and travel 11,500 kilometres from home to deal with possibly their toughest challenge yet – Kyrgyzstan’s FK Abdysh-Ata Kant.

They are the unbeaten Central Asian zonal champions—in an inter-zone final too big for the city of Kant itself.

With all eyes on Spartak Stadium in Bishkek, let’s go over how these sides got to this point and what the Mariners will need to do in order to come home with the edge they need.

“You sunk my battleship!”: Mariners send Odisha to Davy Jones’s locker

After building up a 4-0 lead at home, all the Mariners really had to do to close out the aggregate with Odisha FC was avoid soiling themselves.

That proved crucial since the humidity in Bhubaneswar gave CCM’s attack a serious case of the yips—out of 17 shots, only two were ruled on target.

Granted, Odisha keeper and captain Amrinder Singh stopped some of those from very odd angles, but the Mariners hadn’t looked this snakebitten in continental play since their group-opening loss to Terengganu last September.

That said, the Coasties made up for it with some stingy defence – not only did they make it four clean sheets in their last five AFC Cup games, they didn’t even let Odisha take a shot on goal.

As valiantly as the Juggernauts fought, they just couldn’t escape the suffocating clutches of their opposition. With both sides rendered hapless on the ball, the game ultimately ended in a scoreless tie, thereby sinking Odisha’s continental hopes.

Here’s how it ended in India in the @AFCCup!
While it was a Nil-All tonight, @CCMariners win the 2-Leg Inter-zonal Semi-Final over @OdishaFC, 4-Nil on aggregate. They’ll play Kyrgyz side Abdysh-Ata Kant in the #AFCCup Inter-zonal Final.
Catch the highlights on 10 Play. #OFCvCCM pic.twitter.com/YWfJJty2qp

— 10 Football (@10FootballAU) March 14, 2024

In terms of the tournament, the result got the job done, but it will disappoint AFC club coefficient watchers, as the Mariners’ draw means dropping the extra 0.76 points a second win would have brought.

That’s not to say their window to raise Australia’s continental standing has closed, but if this run is going to push Australia past Iraq and into the top ten, it’ll take every little hundredth CCM can get.

Trouble’s a-Brewin’: Meet FK Abdysh-Ata Kant

For the second consecutive round, the Mariners will have to contend with a zonal champion riding higher than they’ve ever been.

Abdysh-Ata Kant dominated 2022 with a domestic double to earn a trip into Asian football, casually clinched their second straight Kyrgyz Premier League during this tournament’s group stage, and just opened their new season with three straight wins on a +11 goal differential.

Combined with their four other Kyrgyzstan Cups, three of which came in a five-year dynasty from 2007 to 2011, and their 2016 Super Cup, it’s easy to see why the Brewers are one of their country’s most prestigious sides.

Back in Group E, the lone Central Asian block, Abdysh-Ata made themselves kings among kings by going completely unbeaten, the only team in any group to do so.

Only the Turkmenian side Merw Mary could force a 1-1 draw, and their reward for that was an 8-3 humiliation in the rematch.

The inter-zonal semis started on a similarly furious note, as the Brewers dished out a 5-0 thrashing to Taichung Futuro, the East Asian champs, in the first leg of the aggregate.

When the action shifted to Taiwan for the return leg, Futuro looked like they might scrape some dignity back, as they scored in the second minute and held that lead for nearly an hour of game time.

Alas, Abdysh-Ata wasn’t done, scoring thrice in the second half to make it a combined 8-1 result and emphatically punch their ticket to the inter-zonal final.

If there’s one man responsible for Abdysh-Ata’s dominance, it’s Kayrat Zhyrgalbek uulu, who’s made five goals and five assists in the tournament.

Central Coast celebrate a goal.(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Notably, he’s notched both a goal and an assist on three separate occasions, including in his brace against Merw Mary.

Even if you shut him down on the right side of the pitch, that leaves a major threat on the left in Farkhat Musabekov, who’s tallied three goals and four assists.

When Musabekov is on, he’s incredible—he put up two assists in the first leg against Taichung Futuro, and his own brace-plus-assist game fueled a group-clinching comeback against Altyn Asyr.

In fact, if anything defines the Abdysh-Ata attack, it’s their ability to make lightning strike twice. Seven different Brewers have racked up multiple goal involvements in a single match over the course of the tournament, and they’ve had two or more players do so in three of their last four cup matches.

When they’re flooding the box the way they have, it’s no wonder they leave opposing keepers completely punch-drunk.

Much praise is also due to the Brewers’ defense, who’ve only allowed seven goals in eight matches and kept four clean sheets along the way. When the attack was sputtering in October and early November, incapable of notching more than a single goal per game, it was the back line who kept the train on rails and the opposition out of the win column.

Put simply, Abdysh-Ata Kant is a well-composed, well-rounded squad who’ve earned their two-year track record of domination every step of the way.

If you underestimate them, they will bury you—and if you take them seriously, they might bury you anyway just to send a message.


???????? FK Abdysh-Ata Kant are through to their first-ever Inter-Zone Final ????#AFCCup pic.twitter.com/avb6yWgSCm

— #AFCCup (@AFCCup) March 13, 2024

Bishkek Battle Plans: CCM’s keys to victory

If the Mariners want to win this game, they’ll need to watch the clock, because the previous rounds clearly show us Abdysh-Ata is a second-half squad.

In the first halves of their AFC Cup games to this point, the Brewers have scored a combined six goals and given up five. Of those six scored, five came in the final match of Group E when they beat Merw Mary 8-3.

By contrast, in the second halves of those games, Abdysh-Ata scored 20 goals and allowed just two. Both of those concessions came from that same Merw Mary game when the Brewers were nursing an insurmountable lead and had already clinched the zonal crown two weeks prior in Turkmenistan.

Flipping that script will be a two-part endeavour.

First, the Mariners will need to come out swinging, hitting hard and fast to establish control early and make it as difficult as possible for the Brewers to recover later on.

Then, manager Mark Jackson will have to outfox his counterpart, Islam Akhmenov, at the half and beyond, making smart substitutions and exploiting any mismatches he‘s found.

It’ll take every man on their sideline, coaches and players alike, but for a well-oiled machine like CCM, it should be more than doable.

A strong start will also go a long way towards establishing an early psychological edge. While Abdysh-Ata have been incredible so far, the Taichung Futuro they faced last month wasn’t exactly the version that fell a single point short of a Taiwanese league title in 2022.

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To go from a team playing like a shell of their former selves to a team like the Mariners is a huge leap.

If the Yellow and Navy can put Abdysh-Ata on the back foot early, it could bruise the Brewers’ egos in a way that no one has been able to do in quite some time.

Whatever happens Wednesday night, it should set the stage for a return leg in Gosford to remember.

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