Ashique Kuruniyan made the headlines when he was snapped up by Spanish Premier Division side Villarreal CF to play in their youth academy teams. But the Malappuram winger's dream to shine in Spain received a jolt when he suffered a hamstring tear which prematurely ended his stint.
However, the experience gathered in Villarreal have helped him better his game and his string of impressive performances in Indian Super League (ISL) season 4 is a testimony to it. The youngster has firmly entered the plans of Stephen Constantine as he not only made his debut for the senior team in the Intercontinental Cup but also notched up considerable game time under his belt.
From the sugarcane shops of Malappuram to his national team debut, it has been a roller-coaster ride for the youngster. Under the guidance of former Pune City coach Ranko Popovic, Kuruniyan made significant upgrades in his game.
He already had pace to burn in the flanks but his tendency to dribble and hold on to the ball unnecessarily were hindrances that he has rectified to an extent. He is an integral part of the India U23 squad and was a bright spark on the left flank in the SAFF Cup. When Maldives poured men at the back to defend their lead in the final, Kuruniyan by skipping past three defenders and produced a peach of a cross for Farukh Choudhary whose effort on goal was just about kept out by the Maldivian defence.
Earlier in the Super Cup, he showed his fluency as part of a front three with Marcelinho and Diego Carlos and got into good scoring positions. Although he squandered those chances, if he continues to get into those positions with a little bit of composure he can find the net more often.
If Kuruniyan shoulders the responsibility of keeping the ball moving on the left flank, then his fellow U23 teammate Nikhil Poojari will be tasked to do the same on the right. Poojari was the standout performer in 2017 with East Bengal. He was rewarded for his performances in the I-League and soon went on to represent India in the 2018 AFC U23 Championship qualifiers in Qatar in July. Continuing his good run of form in 2017, he also won his senior cap in the Tri-Nation tournament against Mauritius.
But fortune turned its back on the Mumbai-based winger when he suffered an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury in a pre-season friendly against Bengaluru FC which effectively ended his domestic season even before it started taking wings. The winger has made a comeback and thereafter was included in the SAFF Cup squad.
He has been a livewire for India in the South-Asian tournament. He was the architect and scorer of India's opener against Maldives in the group stage. Although he was making his first competitive start in almost an year, he showed no signs of rustiness. When he won the ball near the touchline, he dared to make a solo run towards goal and after a swift one-two with Choudhary he scored his maiden India goal.
In the final, it was once again Poojari's delivery across the face of the goal which eluded the entire Maldives defence and fell for Sumeet Passi who scored a late consolation goal.
Diego Carlos is another player who has the ability to keep the opposition fullbacks on their toes. He was a vital cog in Popovic's plans as Pune secured their maiden play-off berth in four years last season. The performances against Mumbai City and ATK in ISL 4 were the highlights of his campaign. He gave the entire ATK defence a run for their money in the return leg in Pune before scoring.
He racked up 1319 minutes in 18 appearances and scored twice and assisted on two other occasions. On his day, he can take on defenders and beat them with his pace and guile. He also likes to cut inside from the left and has shown the flexibility to exercise his options before deciding whether to go for goal or find a teammate.
There is also Gabriel Fernandes who has not played much first-team football of late. But the 30-year-old winger is a speedster, adding more pace to Pune City's game.
Portugal likes to use his wings to penetrate in the attacking third as was witnessed during his stint with Delhi Dynamos. It looks that the Spanish coach will be spoilt for choices on the wings in his new assignment with Pune City.