The Stallions hierarchy must stake credit for accepting their mistakes from the past and taking bold decisions to correct them in the present.
The fourth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) looks nicely poised as teams are scratching and crawling towards a top four finish. It seems like one team in particular, FC Pune City have finally found their feet this season after missing out on playoff berths all these years. Be it due to tactical failures or lack of cohesion in the side, the team was only helping itself to earn the chokers’ tag till last season.
On paper, Pune had always looked a decent side, in fact, better than most. However, they could not produce performances on the pitch. Better late than never, the team seems to have risen from their pitfalls, addressed their shortcomings and are a team-to-beat this time around. Here’s some insight into why a playoff spot has eluded Pune City in previous seasons.
Big names don’t win you games. Despite having some blockbuster marquee signings like David Trezeguet (2014), Adrian Mutu and Didier Zokora (2015) and Eidur Gudjohnsen (2016, later replaced by Momo Sissoko) over the past seasons, the team failed to live up to the expectations and never managed to reach the knockouts. Injuries to Eidur Gudjohnsen and Andre Bikey before the start of last season forced Pune to bring in replacements, viz. Dramane Traore and Momo Sissoko but the new imports could not help turn Pune’s fate.
Marcelinho and Emiliano Alfaro have been integral to Pune’s success
It was pretty obvious that Pune lacked a proper leader on the pitch to marshall the troops. Noteworthy imports like MacPherlin “Dudu” Omagbemi and Kostas Katsouranis (first season), Diego Colotto, Yendrick Ruiz, Roger Johnson and Kalu Uche (second season), Momar N’Doye, Eduardo Soares Ferreira and Jonatan Lucca (third season) failed to leave their mark on the pitch. Jesus Tato, a former FC Barcelona academy product, is still considered the biggest flop of Pune’s previous campaign. Also, injury concerns to some of the key players at crucial stages worsened their already woeful run of form. These problems compounded as the tournament progressed and Pune never looked a settled side.
Add to that, the team was saddled with some average Indian players which didn’t help their cause as abject performances spoke for themselves. Although they retained veteran India-international Gouramangi Singh and experienced midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh last season, the dup were well past their heydays.
For the Stallions another problem lay on the touchline as the seasonal change of head coaches did them no good. While it was Franco Colomba in 2014, Englishman David Platt stepped in as his successor a year later. Neither the Italian tactics nor the English ruthlessness managed to materialize for the club as lack of consistency slapped hard on Pune’s faith in the first couple of seasons. The Stallions did not seem to learn the lessons from the past under Antonio Lopez Habas either. The Spanish tactician had a successful two-year spell with ATK, winning the inaugural title while losing out in the semis next season. But he could not work his magic wand in Pune.
With renewed hopes, Pune kick-started once again this season. One must whole-heartedly appreciate Pune’s shrewd business in the market before the start of this campaihgn. The club think-tank was right on the money when it came to playing their cards. Rather than signing new marquee players, Pune picked the cream of the crop from the last season of the ISL. They roped in Emiliano Alfaro (from NorthEast United), as well as the duo of Marcos Tebar and Marcelinho (from Delhi Dynamos). The Pune management also retained the services of 23-year old Brazilian midfielder Jonatan Lucca while Rafael Lopez Gomez has been another underrated but vital addition to the squad with his La Liga experience is helping Pune big time.
Pune got their signings right this season
The Wadhawan Group co-owned outfit made some fantastic calls when it came to the domestic players’ draft as well. While Vishal Kaith and Ashique Kuruniyan were retained, the Orange Army inducted the likes of Adil Khan, Sarthak Golui, Kean Lewis, Chhuantea Fanai, Gurtej Singh and Baljit Sahni amongst others in their their ranks.
Unlike previous seasons, the new ‘six Indians-five overseas players rule has proved to be decisive on many occasions. The domestic players have shown immense confidence and maturity while linking with their foreign teammates. Most importantly Pune have got the balance right with a good mix of talented Indians and overseas stars.
A low-profile coach in Ranko Popovic has left no stone unturned in leading his boys well past their previous hurdles. Despite lacking depth in the squad, the Serbian tactician has rotated his group around 4-5 key players successfully, yielding them desired results. Regardless of the constant criticism and blunders in man management across previous seasons, the Pune hierartchy has done a commendable job on all fronts this time around.
All-in-all, Pune have been quite street-smart while picking their players this season, getting rid of most of the underperformers. Each of their other top four rivals will be equally wary of their abilities when it comes to the knockouts. As the club finally stands on the brink of qualification for the playoffs, it remains to be seen whether the Stallions can gallop all the way up to the top of the podium and stay true to the Punekars’ Orange Army and the club’s motto – “Passion Honour Glory”.