Pune: FC Pune City host Bengaluru FC in the first leg of semi-final 1 fixture of the Indian Super League (ISL) at the Balewadi Stadium on Wednesday. The winner of this tie will take a huge step towards making it into their maiden final in the four-year-old tournament.
File image of Bengaluru FC. AFP
Despite picking up just two points from their last three games, Pune have managed to make it to the last four of the competition for the first time in four seasons.
After a slow start to the season, Ranko Popovic's men registered nine wins, three draws and six losses this campaign " the same as FC Goa, who finished above them on the basis of a better goal difference.
One of the key factors behind Pune's success has been coach Popovic's faith in young Indian players like Vishal Kaith, Sarthak Golui, Ashique Kuruniyan, Rohit Kumar and Sahil Panwar, who have all contributed when needed during the season. "Many of the players played their first games with us. This could be an advantage for us tomorrow (Wednesday) as these guys are living their dream. I just want these players to keep their eyes open and keep dreaming," said Popovic.
Apart from the youngsters, the silver lining for Pune has been the attacking duo of Marcelinho and Emiliano Alfaro. The two have played a role in 16 of the 30 goals the team has scored so far. Brazilian ace Marcelinho has seven assists to his name while Uruguayan forward Alfaro has scored nine goals.
Ahead of the semi-final clash, Popovic said he won't make any radical changes as it would hinder the chemistry of the team. "We have two games to play and so nothing is going to be decided tomorrow. We have to play smartly in both games. It has to be a balanced approach like we have had all through the season," Popovic told reporters on the eve of the playoff match at the Balewadi Stadium.
"If we try to make radical changes now, it will be bad for us because we would try to do something we haven't done before," the Serbian coach added.
Meanwhile, it is fair to say that no team has dominated the group stage of the tournament the way Bengaluru have. The Blues are the standout performers with 40 points on the table, the most in regular season having defeated every club in the league stage.
Much of the credit for Bengaluru's success goes to coach Albert Roca, who has relied heavily on the strike pair of Miku and Sunil Chhetri. The duo has combined brilliantly up front, scoring 24 of the 35 goals for the team. Miku has been impressive with 14 goals to his name while Chhetri has found the back of the net 10 times.
Pune and Bengaluru have faced each other on two occasions in the league stages. Bengaluru won the away match 3-1, with Miku scoring a brace and Chhetri adding to his tally, while in the return leg, Sarthak Golui's first-half goal helped Pune steal a point with a 1-1 draw.
"The first match we played against them, they were leading. It was only after they got a red card we scored three goals. At home, we had to equalise. We can't take them lightly tomorrow. FC Pune City are a tough team to play against but we are looking forward to it," Bengaluru FC assistant coach Naushad Moosa said.
Interestingly, Bengaluru are on a 12-match unbeaten streak in all competitions, including eight ISL and four AFC Cup games, but Moosa was wary of their opponent's fluidity and pace.
"They have lost only once in the last five matches. They're aggressive on the field. What you see from the coach (Popovic), transfers to the players and they have been doing really good. It would be great to get an early goal. In the last four-five games we have been getting early goals so we hope we do that," added Moosa.
However, recent results show that despite Pune's admirable attacking prowess, the team has been vulnerable at the back at home against strong opposition teams, with four losses in eight games. On the other hand, Bengaluru's defensive pairing of John Johnson and Juanan has only conceded 16 goals in 18 games. Also, the team has registered a total of seven clean sheets with custodian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu leading the Golden Glove table. The only challenge for them would be to keep Marcelinho and Alfaro at bay.
Bengaluru also have the experience of playing knockout matches, while Pune are slated to play their first ever semi-finals. This does give Bengaluru a slight advantage over the hosts in this crucial away tie.
Pune's fluidity and pace up front are no doubt a threat to opposition teams but Bengaluru will be looking to target Popovic's defence and aim for an early goal to keep the boisterous home fans quiet.