Mariners captain’s 18-year shot at revenge comes against bogey side out to stop a treble

Hear from Sydney FC head coach Ufuk Talay ahead of his side's Semi-Final first leg clash with Central Coast Mariners

March 5, 2006: A 20-year-old Danny Vukovic sits on the Stadium Australia turf, gazing into the distance, wondering what might have been after Grand Final defeat to Sydney FC.

It was the very first season of the Isuzu UTE A-League, and Vukovic’s Mariners had come from third place to reach the Grand Final.

The goalkeeper received his shot in the starting XI early in the season after an injury to first-choice keeper John Crawley and he never looked back – but in the title decider, fell agonisingly short of a Championship.

Sydney’s Steve Corica scored the only goal of the game to sink the Mariners in a 1-0 win to the Sky Blues.

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More than 18 years on, Vukovic is a two-time Isuzu UTE A-League Champion; he won his second title last season on return to the Mariners and remarkably, remains the only active player from that inaugural season Grand Final.

This season, the Mariners captain is on the hunt for back-to-back titles, and an unprecedented trophy three-peat: the Isuzu UTE A-League Premiership and Championship, to go with the club’s historic AFC Cup title sealed in Oman on Monday morning (AEST).

Stood in his path are the Sky Blues – the perpetrators of his 2006 Grand Final heartbreak – in a two-legged Semi-Final, kicking off at Allianz Stadium on Friday night.

Vukovic and the Mariners are favourites to progress to the Grand Final – but considering Sydney’s recent form, and their ascendancy over the Gosford club throughout the competition’s history, besting the Sky Blues will be no easy feat.

After losing four games in a row to start the season, Central Coast Mariners went on to lose just two more games en route to the Premiership. Both of those defeats were at the hands of Sydney FC.

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Having elected to host the return leg of this Semi-Final, Central Coast travel to Allianz Stadium looking to halt Sydney’s momentum and gain the upper-hand in the two-legged bout.

Ufuk Talay’s Sydney beat the Mariners twice this season – three times when including a pre-season Australia Cup Round of 32 clash which Sydney won in a penalty shootout.

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The Mariners are Isuzu UTE A-League Premiers after a stellar season under Mark Jackson, but the table-toppers will need to buck recent trends if they are to get a leg up in the Semis. Sydney FC have won 18 of their last 26 games against Central Coast, losing just four times with four draws.

In the high-stakes environment of the Finals Series, the Sky Blues have an impeccable recent record, losing just one of 17 post-season games in Sydney in the history of the Isuzu UTE A-League (W13, D3). That defeat was to Melbourne Victory in the 2017-18 Semi-Finals.

But if they are to beat the Mariners in leg one, Sydney must do so without their star man Joe Lolley, a top Johnny Warren Medal contender who has been ruled out for the season with a hamstring injury.

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Upon confirming Lolley’s injury absence, Talay revealed Sydney captain Luke Brattan had not suffered a fracture in his ankle after a hefty challenge from Macarthur midfielder Jake Hollman in the Elimination Finals.

“If he continues improving at the current rate then I am optimistic he will be good to go on Friday night,” Talay said.

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The Mariners will know that the Lolley-less Sky Blues still pose an immense threat to their three-peat push on return from Oman, where on Monday morning (AEST) they defeated Al Ahed in the AFC Cup Final. That was trophy number two for Jackon’s side this season, adding to the Premiers Plate hoisted on the final day of the regular season.

The focus has quickly switched to securing back-to-back Championships and the Mariners will take confidence from a five-game winning run in the league heading into the Semi-Finals.

A win over Sydney on Friday night would extend that streak to six – equalling the club’s longest winning run in Isuzu UTE A-League history first set in November/December 2011.

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Head-to-head this season

Round 16: Central Coast 1-3 Sydney FC

The first of two Sydney wins over Central Coast this season came in the form of a 3-1 triumph on the road in February.

The Sky Blues ran rampant early in Gosford, with Rhyan Grant and Anthony Caceres both scoring inside eight minutes before an own goal to Dan Hall made it 3-0 by the 20-minute mark.

The Mariners fought back in the second half but the damage was done as Sydney recorded an impressive 3-1 win.

Round 22: Sydney FC 2-0 Central Coast Mariners

It was the same story in Round 22, as Central Coast travelled to Allianz Stadium – the stage for the first leg of the Semi-Finals – and fell to a 2-0 defeat to Sydney FC.

Caceres scored for the second time against the Mariners this season to put Sydney on top, before Joel King iced the game in the second half with his first A-Leagues goal.

Opta stats

  • Sydney FC have lost only four of their last 26 A-League Men games against Central Coast Mariners (W18 D4) and have won their last three in a row; the last and only previous time they won more consecutive games against the Mariners was a five-game streak from November 2014 to December 2015.
  • Sydney FC have lost only one of their 17 A-League Men finals games in Sydney in the history of the competition (W13 D3) – a 2-3 extra-time loss to Melbourne Victory in the Semi-Finals of the 2017-18 campaign.
  • Central Coast Mariners have won nine of their last 10 A-League Men games including their last five in a row; in fact, a sixth straight win would equal their longest winning streak in the competition set in November to December 2011 (6 games).
  • Central Coast Mariners have lost only two of their last 23 games in the A-League Men (W17 D4); however, both of their defeats in that period have been against Sydney FC.
  • Mikael Doka (Central Coast Mariners) has been directly involved in seven goals across his last eight A-League Men games (1 goal, 6 assists), including one in each of his last four games (1 goal, 3 assists); though, he’s neither scored nor assisted a goal against Sydney FC (2 games).