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Central Coast Mariners deny Melbourne Heart house-warming party

Jess Van Strattan

Central Coast keeper Jess Van Strattan claims the ball against Melbourne Heart. Picture: George Salpigtidis Source: The Australian

A NEW team with an imposing squad playing out of a wonderful new stadium is an appetising combination.

However, it made for a disappointing debut for Melbourne Heart last night.

The A-League's 11th team offered encouraging glimpses of its potential and of the possibilities for a second side in the AFL heartland of Melbourne but ultimately, and perhaps understandably, lacked the cohesion to pull back an early first-half strike from Central Coast Mariners' captain Alex Wilkinson.

While the result was always going to be merely one aspect of a night dedicated as much to unwrapping two of the game's new gifts as the three points, it spoke loudly of a need for patience. From the fans - 11,050 of whom turned out at an AAMI Park that is as good as it has been billed - to Heart coach John van 't Schip and his players.

Heart said it would play with width and technique and much has been made of the Dutch tradition van 't Schip, a player and coach out of the famed Ajax school, is hoping to instil.

He even opened with two Dutchmen on the park, striker Gerald Sibon and winger Rutger Worm, both of whom boast Eredivisie experience.

And yet he has had the squad together for just three weeks and it showed against a Mariners team managed for the first time by former Socceroos coach Graham Arnold, but still one very much constructed out of industry and grunt.

"In total, it was a game you could see that the team has to grow," van 't Schip said afterwards.

"We know what we have to do. We have to become better as a team."

After a composed and enterprising beginning from the new boys, the match was quickly played to a less exotic rhythm, a more pragmatic 4-4 beat of Central Coast's making.

Arnold successfully employed Matt Simon to mark Heart's marquee midfielder, Josip Skoko, demanded a disciplined form be kept across the back and got energised performances out of John Hutchinson, Michael McGlinchey and Oliver Bozanic in mid-field.

The Mariners duly ground their way into the contest and as they did so the Heart, who had stroked the ball around with panache in the first 15 minutes, but slowly began to lose their sense of purpose.

They were keeping the ball but doing little to disturb Central Coast's order and certainly did not threaten again - as Alex Terra did with a powerful low drive in the third minute - until the 44th minute when the Brazilian got on to the end of a good ball from Dean Heffernan but headed high.

Once the Mariners gained an ascendancy in the middle of the pitch, principally Hutchinson and Simon, they began to seriously test the Heart out on the right.

In the 14th minute, a cross from McGlinchey found Wilkinson at the back post. The Mariners' captain put his header into the arms of Heart keeper Clint Bolton but it proved to be an instructive rehearsal for an almost identical opportunity two minutes later.

Wilkinson comfortably brushed aside his marker, Michael Marrone, and stood alone to meet Hutchinson's curling corner with his radar adjusted. Bolton was beaten to his right and the visitors, rather than the new boys, were a goal to the good.

And so it would stay.

Wilkinson was understandably elated with his goal. It was just his second in 111 games but no one really came close to sharing his personal joy.

The Mariners didn't threaten greatly in the second half.

Arnold gave his side 9/10 for its defensive work and 6/10 for those times when it was up to them to make something with the ball.

"We had a very good first half but we gave the ball up too easily in the second. I want better," Arnold said.

That said, he can bring the creativity of Josh Rose and Patricio Perez into the team for next week's match at Bluetongue Stadium against Adelaide. Neither played last night due to injury.

The Heart, on the other hand, need matches more than players.

"In the long run, we still have 29 matches to go. We have to keep our vision. We can still be what we want to be," van 't Schip said.

Central Coast Mariners 1 (Alex Wilkinson 16m) Melbourne Heart 0 at AAMI Park. Crowd: 11,050.

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