The hosts are firmly placed in the top four while the visitors have battled inconsistency all season.
David James’ return to Kerala Blasters FC saw a three-match unbeaten run at the start, but that was punctured by back-to-back defeats before his side recovered to get all three points against Delhi Dynamos in the Hero Indian Super League.
It has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the Englishman and his team’s fans as they look to overhaul a two-point gap to the top four. The only issue is that the Kerala Blasters have played more games than any of the teams in contention for a place in the semifinal and will now face the daunting task of beating high-flying FC Pune City at Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex Stadium, Pune, on Friday.
Pune are themselves dreaming of the possibility to make the Hero ISL playoffs for the first time ever, and have the momentum with two wins out of two and a healthy return of just one defeat in their last six games. Ranko Popovic’s side are dangerous on the counter, lethal on the finish and have the second-best defence in the league with just 12 goals conceded.
“The defeat to FC Goa was tough and left us in a position where we had to win six games in a row so the Delhi win was very important. Confidence in the players was good and it put us one step ahead in the quest to win the remaining games,” said James.
James was asked what he thought of Pune goalkeeper Vishal Kaith, who has kept four cleansheets in nine appearances, making 21 saves in the process. “He’s a talented young man and there are some things which he is very good at and there are some things about him that we will look to take advantage of tomorrow,” said the former England international.
He also said that star signing Dimitar Berbatov “looked fantastic in training” and did not respond to questions over other transfer targets.
Pune City can go top of the table provisionally if they beat Kerala Blasters. The free-scoring side have Marcelo Pereira and Emiliano Alfaro in good form and it will be hard to stop them. Popovic however, while happy, is not completely satisfied with his side and demanded more.
“It’s good if people are talking (about our performances) but I have always maintained that we need to balance both attack and defence to do well. So yes, we are on a good way, but we are not yet good – we are trying. In football, you have to repeat week after week that what is behind us is nice – but it’s about the future now,” he said.
Popovic also admitted that he doesn’t like making many changes to his side. Alfaro has played all 12 games so far and the head coach said that he will only rest him if it is necessary for the player to rest. So far, that hasn’t happened, so Popovic will continue fielding him. However, he said that there were some niggles and he may be forced to rotate his squad.
Kerala Blasters will hope that these changes work in their favour as they embark on yet another tough fixture.
FC Pune City 1 – 4 Kerala Blasters FC (2 draws)
Adil Khan (FC Pune City)
The Stallions’ midfield engine has been one of the most versatile players in the league this season. His attacking prowess has been as commendable as his defensive display. The 29-year-old wins most of his aerial duels and is always a big threat from attacking set-pieces. Khan’s tally of four so far is particularly impressive seeing that he mostly plays the holding role in Pune’s midfield.
Iain Hume (Kerala Blasters FC)
Hero ISL’s all-time leading goal-scorer has shown good scoring touch of late. The Canadian striker has displayed much of the class that had deserted him at the start of the season. Hume will look to be amongst the goals once more when his team visits Pune and he will be confident of getting on the scoresheet again, having netted five times this season, including the winner from the spot against Delhi in Kerala’s last fixture.
FC Pune City
Ranko Popovic will probably field a 4-2-3-1 formation with Emiliano Alfaro spearheading the Stallions’ attack.
Goalkeeper: Vishal Kaith
Defenders: Sarthak Golui, Gurtej Singh, Rafael Lopez, Lalchhuanmawia Fanai
Midfielders: Diego Carlos, Adil Khan, Jonatan Lucca, Marcelinho, Ashique Kuruniyan
Forward: Emiliano Alfaro
Pune head coach Popovic assessing his opponents’ mentality: “It will be a very difficult match because we know what Kerala is like. It is a traditionally good club. And especially, now at this moment, there are some fresh players. They have a new challenge, and the motivation is big for them.”
Kerala Blasters FC
David James will probably use a regular 4-4-2 formation to provide balance in the gameplay.
Goalkeeper: Subhasish Roy
Defenders: Lalruatthara, Wes Brown, Nemanja Lakic-Pesic, Sandesh Jhingan
Midfielders: Courage Pekuson, Victor Forcada, Milan Singh, Jackichand Singh
Forwards: CK Vineeth, Iain Hume
Kerala head coach David James on his approach for the remaining games: “One of the things you do as a head coach is not stifle the opportunities of your players. Bringing in players can be done, but it does not mean it is the right thing for the club. There are performances in the team which were so encouraging that it kind of changes your mindset on how you got to approach the remaining five games.”
- Both Pune and Kerala have lost four matches so far
- The Stallions’ only win against Kerala has come in Pune
Kerala Blasters 1-1 FC Pune City (4th January 2018 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi)
FC Pune City: W W L D W
Kerala Blasters: W L L W W