AFC Cup Final Preview: Mariners eye $2.3m & next step in treble as 99,000km journey ends

WATCH: Central Coast Mariners lift first Premiers Plate in 12 years

One trophy down, two to go.

Central Coast Mariners are 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League Premiers – but before the Gosford side makes a run at back-to-back Championships, Mark Jackson’s side head to Oman for the AFC Cup Final as their shot at a trophy treble rolls on in Asia.

The Mariners face Lebanese Champions Al Ahed in the AFC Cup title decider after a gruelling run through the Asian Football Confederation’s second tier of continental competition. The final will be staged in Oman in the early hours of Monday, May 6 (AEST), free to watch for Australian viewers on 10 Play.

The journey to Oman will take the Mariners’ total travel distance in AFC Cup action to more than 99,000 kilometres at the end of the long-winding road to the final.

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the AFC Cup Final.

PREMIERS: Central Coast crush Phoenix dreams with final day win & move 4 games from treble
MARINERS’ ‘PERFECT MODEL’: It’s created ‘clearly the best story in Australian football’ 

How to watch?

You can watch the AFC Cup Final live and free on 10 Play.

Match detailsAl Ahed v Central Coast Mariners
Date: Sunday, May 5 (local) – Monday, May 6 AEST
Kick-off: 8pm (local) – 2am AEST
Venue: Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, Oman


Road to the final

Central Coast Mariners

The Mariners qualified for the 2023-24 AFC Cup after winning last season’s Isuzu UTE A-League Championship. It was the sixth time in club history that the Mariners qualified for Asian competition, having reached the Champions League group stage in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2015 as well as progressing to the Round of 16 in the 2013 Champions League campaign.

Central Coast’s first appearance in the AFC Cup saw the A-Leagues club enter Group G along with Terengganu, Bali United and Stallion Laguna; the Mariners finished top of the group, one point ahead of Terengganu having collected 13 points from six games (W4, D1, L1).

Progression to the AFC Cup knockouts set the stage for a convoluted path to the final; the Mariners smashed Phnom Penh Crown 4-0 in the Zonal Semi-Finals, then faced fellow A-Leagues club Macarthur FC in the Zonal Final – the very first meeting between two A-Leagues sides in AFC competition.

Central Coast edged Macarthur 3-2 in a dramatic extra-time win in Campbelltown to progress to the Inter-Zonal Semi-Finals and a two-legged tie with Indian side Odisha FC. The Mariners won leg one 4-0, then drew 0-0 in the return leg to ease to the Inter-Zonal Final against Kyrgyz side Abdysh-Ata Kant.

The Inter-Zone Final also took place across two legs. The Mariners drew 1-1 with Abdysh-Ata away from home, then stormed to a 3-0 win in Gosford to win the tie 4-1 on aggregate and progress to the Final against Al Ahed.

Al Ahed

The Mariners progressed to the AFC Cup Final through the ASEAN Zone (Groups F-H), while Lebanese club Al Ahed made their way through the competition via the West Asia Zone (Groups A-C).

Al Ahed finished second in Group A on six points, winning two of four games (two defeats) to progress straight to the Zonal Semi-Finals.

In the Semi-Finals, penalties were required to separate Al Ahed from Iraq club Al-Kahrabaa after their two-legged tie finished 1-1. Al Ahed won the shootout 4-2 to progress to the Zonal Final against Al-Nahda (Oman); the first leg finished 1-0 in favour of Al Ahed, and a 2-2 draw in the return leg saw the Lebanese Champions win 3-2 on aggregate and progress straight to the AFC Cup Final against the Mariners.

Al Ahed are 12-time Lebanese Premier League Champions and won their first AFC Cup title in 2019. Scottish youth international Lee Erwin is the player to watch in this season’s final; the former Leeds and Motherwell striker scored a five-minute brace late in the second leg of Al Ahed’s clash with Al-Nahda in the AFC Cup Zonal Final second-leg to bring his side back on level terms on the night and to confirm a 3-2 aggregate win for the Lebanese side.


Why is the Final in Oman?

Each year, the team nominated as the host of the final is selected on a rotational basis.

When the AFC Cup campaign begins in an odd year it’s hosted by the side from the West Zone that reaches the final, and when the campaign begins in an even year, it’s hosted by the team that progresses from the ASEAN Zone.

With the 2023-24 AFC Cup beginning in an odd year, hosting rights fell to the West Zone and Al Ahed; with the host club unable to stage the venue in Lebanon, the final has been set at Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Oman.

A-Leagues clubs in AFC Finals: a history

For just the third time since the Isuzu UTE A-League’s inception, an Australian club is representing the league in the showpiece event of an AFC club tournament.

Adelaide United made the 2008 AFC Champions League Final, and faced Japanese club Gamba Osaka across the two-legged decider. The Reds lost 3-0 in the first leg and 2-0 on return to Coopers Stadium.

Six years later, Western Sydney Wanderers became the second A-Leagues club to reach an AFC Champions League Final and this time, the Wanderers made history.

The Wanderers faced Al-Hilal in the decider and took a 1-0 lead at home in the first leg. Tony Popovic’s side then travelled to King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh and held on to a 0-0 draw to claim the trophy.

What’s at stake?

Victory over Al Ahed would not only make the Mariners only the second A-Leagues club to win silverware in AFC competition, but net the Mariners a cool USD $1.5 million in prize money – close to AUD $2.3 million.

The Mariners are already guaranteed a windfall of more than AUD $1 million for reaching the final alone, with the runners-up netting USD $750,000.