‘Feels like a dream’: Teenager’s priceless interview after ‘crazy’ feat makes Mariners history

Central Coast book spot in AFC Cup final with 3-0 win over Abdysh-Ata Kant | AFC Cup Highlights

Central Coast Mariners are through to the 2024 AFC Cup Final after Miguel Di Pizio came off the bench to inspire the A-Leagues side to a 3-0 (4-1 aggregate) win over Abdysh-Ata Kant at Industree Group Stadium on Wednesday night.

The Mariners played host to the Kyrgyz club in Gosford after a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Inter-Zonal Final on April 17; Di Pizio’s 77th-minute opener set the stage for Mikael Doka to ice the contest with the Mariners’ second of the night.

Deep into second-half stoppage time, Di Pizo gambled on a mistake at the back and was gifted a second goal on a special night in the teenager’s blossoming career.

DETAILS: Mariners’ AFC Cup Final date, opponent confirmed as potential $2.3m windfall awaits

Mark Jackson’s side will face Lebanese side Al-Ahed in the AFC Cup Final on May 5; it’s the Mariners’ first continental competition final in club history and just the third time an A-Leagues club has reached such an occasion, following both Adelaide United and Western Sydney Wanderers who both reached the AFC Asian Champions League Final in 2008 and 2014 respectively.

The Mariners are now guaranteed a windfall of more than $1 million AUD for reaching the final; the winner will take home USD $1.5 million (AUD $2.3 million), with the runners-up collecting USD $750,000 (AUD $1.14m).

A cagey first-half played out in Gosford before Atay Dzhumashev brought the contest to life just beyond the half-hour mark, with a curling effort aimed toward the bottom-right corner that would have put the visitors ahead in the tie if not for a diving save from Danny Vukovic.

The first half lacked final-third fluency but had plenty of spice as the visitors earned three yellow cards to Central Coast’s one; Ernist Batyrkanov was fortunate to receive a yellow for a rash tackle on Max Balard, landing his studs high up the Mariners midfielder’s right leg before stamping down on his ankle.

The Mariners’ best chance of the first 45 fell to Mikael Doka in stoppage time as he lashed a left-footed strike from distance which was on target, but well saved.

The tension was palpable as the second half got underway and if Batyrkanov was lucky to escape a send-off in the first half, Christian Theoharous equalled the ledger 10 minutes after the restart, somehow escaping without a booking after grazing Teymur Charyyev’s face with his studs in a high boot challenge.

Then came a flurry of action in Gosford. Alou Kuol was taken out by keeper Marsel Islamkulov when attempting to latch onto a through ball and although the incident was not a clear foul, the vocal home support certainly thought so – and let their thoughts be heard.

Islamkulov produced a stunning double save to deny the hosts the lead soon after, prodding Balard’s long-range strike away from goal and getting quickly to his feet to thwart Mikael Doka from the edge of the six-yard box.

Mariners head coach Mark Jackson brought attacking duo Di Pizio and Ryan Edmondson off the bench in search of a deadlock-breaking goal and just five minutes after his introduction, Di Pizio proved the difference in Gosford.

Doka provided a sublime assist for the 18-year-old who got in behind Abdysh-Ata’s defence, and took a fortunate touch past Islamkulov before finishing into an unguarded net.

Di Pizio’s first of the night opened the floodgates as Doka put the hosts out of sight with a sealing second goal.

The unassailable lead knocked the stuffing out of Abdysh-Ata and a sloppy mistake at the back invited Di Pizio in to score his second of the night, settle the tie and send the Mariners through to the AFC Cup Final.

Post-game, 18-year-old Di Pizio delivered an emotive interview, detailing the whirlwind of thoughts circling in his mind after his match-winning brace secured a piece of history for the Mariners.

“Everything feels like a dream,” Di Pizio said.

“Coming off the bench, doing a job for the boys, for the gaffer (head coach Jackson), just trying to give back for the opportunities that he’s given us, and given me especially. It’s all just going through the mind at the moment, it’s crazy.

“It’s a competition where we get to play lots of games, so it’s definitely made us a stronger group travelling together, building the connection with each other,” he added. “It’s a competition that’s huge for the club. It’s a huge night for the club. (To reach) the first AFC Cup Final, it’s big.”