Central Coast Mariners eye Grand Final berth after successfully nullifying Nestory Irankunda

Is Jacob Farrell the antidote to Adelaide United's teenage sensation Nestory Irankunda? A blue and yellow-clad nullifier that serves as the yin to the 17-year-old prodigy's yang? Given that Central Coast Mariners boss Nick Montgomery immediately moved to introduce the former Wyoming Tigers junior in response to Irankunda's entrance to the first leg of the pair's clash on Saturday, a game that would end with his side taking a 2-1 lead back to Gosford for the second-leg, it's not the worst assumption in the world that the Mariners see him that way.

Farrell had already engaged in a successful running battle with Irankunda during the Mariners' 4-1 win over Adelaide in the final week of the A-League Men season and, while there wasn't quite the same level of fireworks this time around, the result was largely the same: Irankunda held goalless and the Mariners leaving Hindmarsh Stadium with a vital win.

Irankunda got just a single shot away in 36 minutes on Saturday: a header on a fast break that forced Mariners keeper Danny Vukovic into a save in the 71st minute. It was a good chance and a well-taken header, but it does require acknowledging that the space he was able to find at the back post was directly related to Farrell slipping him with ease moments prior, only for Beni N'Kololo to sloppily turn the ball over and give the Reds scope to spring forward in transition. And Farrell was able to at least get back and put his body in the vicinity of the attempt anyway.

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This isn't to say at all that Adelaide's young star had an awful game or was a net negative for his side. As was the case with Garang Kuol, that we're even analysing the play of a teenager in these terms is a testament to the promise and impact he can have. And the gravitational effect that Irankunda already makes on defences directly led to George Blackwood having a free header on goal in the 88th minute: Mariners defender Storm Roux drifted away from Craig Goodwin, of all people, to add a fourth body to the wall that was being erected between Irankunda and the goals, which led to a simple cross for Goodwin once a pass was slid across.

The Mariners had to develop a plan to stop Irankunda and he's just unfortunate that, as was the case for the rest of his teammates as well, the one that they came up with was an effective one.

"Irankunda's got strength, he's quick, he runs forward, he's aggressive so if you don't track him and you don't block shots, don't stop crosses and one-twos," Montgomery said post-game. "For Jacob tonight, I'm really proud of him."

Given the prevailing environment, a partisan home crowd doing all they could to lift the Reds in a helter-skelter conclusion, rising whenever a chance in looked in the offing, keeping Irankunda and his teammates contained across the second stanza constituted a validation for the visitor's bonafides, especially in light of the predilection their opponents have demonstrated for scoring late goals.

Be it fatigue, nerves, instruction or some combination, their press wasn't able to be sustained through to the game's conclusion but they were nonetheless able to absorb the Reds' high-volume attacking approach in the second stanza, getting bodies in the way of crosses and shots, while Brian Kaltack and Nectarios Triantis both had standout games. Despite improving in the second half as they were afforded more time on and control of the ball, the Reds struck as a side that's Plan B was to do Plan A better; subtract Goodwin's fourth-minute penalty and the hosts, per FotMob, were restricted to just 0.63 xG from 10 shots throughout the 90 minutes, despite 60 entrances into the final third and 30 crosses.

With towering target-man Hiroshi Ibusuki set to miss the return leg with a calf injury, the question of how Adelaide boss Carl Veart adjusts, how he seeks to respond to yet another game in which the Mariners had his side's number, with a season now on the line, looms large.

"We were a lot better in the second half than what we were in the first," Veart said. "And I suppose we were a bit unfortunate not to get a second goal but that's finals football. We just weren't quite sharp enough in the first half."

Of course, highlighted by Samuel Silvera cannoning an effort off the crossbar in the 25th minute, the Mariners very easily could have put the game to bed well before the first 45 minutes concluded. Jason Cummings' strike to put them ahead in the 38th minute was a just reward for what had been an impressive opening stanza.

Put simply, the visitor's first half was some of the best football that any side has played in the ALM in quite a while. Applying constant pressure the moment the ball was, the Reds couldn't find a way to play through the Mariners' press and ultimately would force Vukovic into action just twice in the first half: one Isaias effort that was fired towards goal from another post-code and a Goodwin effort that was derived late on in the first half and delivered in transition.

In the opposite direction, Montgomery's side displayed a desire, not just a willingness, to move into and receive the ball in tight positions in the middle of the park and to play positive football when they did get it. With Josh Nisbet providing the base, the central areas of the park weren't treated as that shadowy place you must never go but instead an area to penetrate and be brave in.

On Cummings goal to put his side ahead, Max Balard twice discounted the option of a safer pass back to his defenders, first to take the ball away from Zach Clough as he retrieved a pass from Nisbet that took him back driving through the middle towards Adelaide's goal. This induced Isaias to step up and lunge in with an awkwardly mistimed challenge, creating space for Balard to find N'Kololo in time and space to fire off the line-breaking that led to Cummings first-time effort.

Often, entertaining and quality football can be conflated when observing the A-Leagues, style masking substance. The Mariners, however, did both on Saturday evening.

That they deserve praise for accomplishing this -- throughout the season, not just Saturday -- with a football department run of the sniff of an oily rag goes without saying. The work that Montgomery has done in one of the most difficult jobs in Australian football has been immense. Not only has moulded this team into a unit that plays quality football on their way to winning games on the field, or managed to do this while exemplifying and representing the spirit and values of Gosford. Not only does this team feel like it's part of its community, but it's also one that feels like it wants to be.

Plenty has been written about that in recent years. And if form from the first game of the tie holds for the return leg in Gosford, much more will be penned as the Mariners prepare to play in their first Grand Final in a decade. There, they can continue the remarkable turnaround that has seen this side go from being so bad they were on the verge of being relegated from a league without relegation to a side challenging for silverware and qualifying for Asia. A journey born of clarity of purpose and action, driven by a coach in Montgomery that trusts and empowers his players.

Of course, that might be putting the cart before the horse. Before they can finish the story, a return semifinal against Adelaide awaits. And with Sydney FC and Melbourne City both looking beatable based on the other semifinal on Friday evening, the Reds have a tale of their own they're looking to tell.