In their first ever clash in any continental competition, Pune FC is poised against the defending champions of Vietnamese League.
Pune FC and Hanoi T&T FC will face each other in the first round of the AFC Champions League play-offs at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune.
Pune FC, who are the only Indian club to fulfill the AFC Club Licensing criteria, will have the most important day in the club's seven year history when they walk down the tunnel to become the third Indian outfit to play in the AFC Champions League playoffs. It will not be an easy task for them against the Vietnamese outfit, especially given their rough patch in the recent times.
Mike Snoei's men had a brilliant start to the season, reaching the top of the charts after the first few matchdays. However, their performance graph saw a sharp decline for the worse from the end of November and since then they have won only one of their nine competitive fixtures. In the recently concluded Federation Cup also, Pune managed to bag only a single point, that too against a second division Eagles FC side.
They have been further hit by their young prospect Nikhil Kadam being injured and Anthony D'Souza having failed to replicate the former’s performance on the flanks.
The responsibility of scoring will primarily be on the shoulders of Mustapha Riga, who has failed to live up to the expectations despite scoring 5 goals in his 9 appearances. It will be a great platform for the Dutch striker, who has had stints in Levante and Bolton Wanderers to prove his class.
In the midfield, Mumtaz Akhtar and Arata Izumi will be having the responsibility to build up the attacks, with the later having the license to invade the opponent box at times. However, the most important player in the Pune FC midfield will be Douhou Pierre, who has the ability to distribute balls with great aplomb. The Ivory Coast footballer will also meet a few known faces like Thanh Luong and Cao Sy Cuong, thanks to his stint for Vietnamese outfit Hoang Anh Gia Lai in 2007.
Pune FC also boast of one of the best defensive organizations in the nation, and Calum Angus will be the man to watch as the British footballer will pair up with skipper Anas Edathodika at the heart of the defense. The Portsmouth youth product can also impress at the other end of the field as he will be a potential threat to the Hanoi T&T back four especially in dead ball situations.
"It’s a historic moment for the club. In seven years since establishing, Pune FC has come very far making progress on and off the field. Now it is the responsibility of the players to give their all on the biggest stage," Mike Snoei, the Pune FC gaffer remarked in the pre-match presser.
"Hanoi are the champions of Vietnam and do have a very good team. We need to be cautious and senior players like Douhou Pierre and Calum Angus need to step up. Riga Mustapha needs to prove himself now and bring in the experience of playing at the highest level. We need to score goals as this is just a one leg tie," he opined.
Talking about their opponents, Hanoi T&T have played only four competitive fixtures this year and have brought only 16 footballers to Pune for this tie. Duong Hong Son, the legendary custodian of Vietnam, who was adjudged the most valuable player of the 2008 AFF Suzuki Cup and wears the armband for the side, has not travelled with the team due to an injury. In his absence, young Van Cong will start between the sticks.
In the defense, Australian Sam Gallagher and Hong Tien will take the central positions while the side-backs Van Bien and Quoc Long will be overlapping at every opportunity. In the middle of the pitch, Hector and Sy Cuong will try to marshal the area, while Van Quyet and Thanh Luong will be operating from the flanks.
The biggest weapon for the travellers will be the partnership between Gonzalo Marronkle and Hoang Vu Samson upfront. They finished as the joint top scorers of last year's league and their brilliant link-up play can prove out to be lethal for the Red Lizards' defense line. The only good news for the home side is that Gonzalo has a niggle and a last minute check-up on the matchday will decide his fate.
"Gonzalo has a small injury. We don’t want to risk anything. We will see in today’s training session and only make a decision tomorrow," Phan Thanh Hung, the coach of the side told in the pre-match press conference.
"This is our first game in the AFC Champions League and we have prepared very hard for it. We have a lot of respect for the home team, but we want to try and win this game. They (Pune FC) have a good mix of foreign and local players guided by a good coach. But our players are ready and we will try to do our best to get a good result on Wednesday," he further added.
With this one-legged affair having a possibility of going into extra time, it also remains to be seen how the away side adapts to the weather condition.