FC Pune City showed a defensive resilience that has largely been missing for much of their dismal Indian Super League (ISL) campaign so far on Friday night at the Sree Kanteerava stadium but still ended up on the losing side against league leaders Bengaluru FC.
Pradhyum Reddy’s men huffed and puffed for the entirety of the last 45 minutes but in the end, Bengaluru's superior quality ultimately shone through as Rahul Bheke pinched a winner in the dying minutes.
It had been a night where Pune’s defence had been severely tested by a dominant hosts but custodian Kamaljit Singh and central defender Matt Mills were near unshakable for the Stallions at the back.
Kamaljit kept pulling off save after save while Mills threw his body on the line as the Stallions looked to escape with a hard-earned draw but Bheke’s late winner saw all the good work being undone in the very end.
It was in defence that Pune thrived on the night with the visitors putting multiple bodies behind the ball. Adil Khan put in a tireless shift in the base of the midfield while Marko Stankovic was his usual industrious self on the wings.
While the central defence pairing of Mills and Martin Diaz were exemplary, the full-backs in Ashutosh Mehta and Lalchhuanmawia Fanai were given a torrid time all night by the Bengaluru attackers. Fanai was so poor that he was taken off for Sahil Panwar in the 34th minute.
In attack, however, Pune lacked cohesion with Robin Singh and Marcelinho blowing hot and cold. It was young Ashique Kuruniyan who looked the most threatening of the visitors’ but the left winger was starved of the ball for majority of the game.
While Reddy can take some comfort from the team’s defensive resilience, he will know that it is in attack that the majority of Pune’s troubles lie.
Pune’s front men had an off day but the same cannot be said for Bengaluru’s. Sunil Chhetri and co. made the visitors’ defence earn their stripes on the night as they kept knocking on the Pune goal after a slow start.
The opening goal by Udanta Singh had come against the run of play after Pune had dominated the initial proceedings but once in front, Bengaluru’s onslaught on the Pune defence started and did not rest until the final whistle.
While Chhetri remained a threat as ever, there were some positive signs from Bhutanese forward Chencho Gyeltshen who showed some moments of brilliance before being substituted in the second half. With the prolific Miku still ruled out with injury, Chencho nearly stepped up to the plate but he was constantly thwarted by Kamaljit Singh.
While the Bhutanese dazzled with his footwork and quick bursts of pace, his final execution left plenty to be desired and it is in that aspect that Miku’s absence was felt the most on Friday.
Udanta was lively whenever he had the ball but the winger was mostly consigned to the peripheries of the game. Despite that, the Bengaluru attacker bagged a sensational goal and nearly grabbed another which bounced off Kamaljit’s near post in the second period.
Dimas Delgado was slightly sluggish in his return from suspension in the Bengaluru midfield with Xisco Hernandes looking very good in his advanced role. Harmanjot Khabra was full of running all night and deserves plenty of credit for not giving towards the end to set up Bheke’s late winner. The right-back was made to endure some uncomfortable moments by Kuruniyan but stood up to the task well in the end and was a constant livewire as an overlapping full-back. He had a hand in the first goal scored by Udanta as well.
Erik Paartalu was also excellent on his return from injury with the Australian slotting in comfortably in midfield. Despite playing in a deep role, Paartalu was a constant menace with his forward runs and the Aussie nearly scored with an excellent long-range strike towards the end of the first period.
Playing in an unfamiliar centre-back role, Bheke can be proud of his display. While Bheke did concede an own-goal but he will be relieved that he was ultimately able to make the difference at the other end.
Based on Friday’s showing, Bengaluru still remain the team to beat in the ISL. Cuadrat’s men were not as free-flowing with their football as they would have liked to be but still managed to impose themselves on the visitors. In the end, it took some wasteful finishing and some resolute defending from the visitors to keep the match locked at 1-1 for the majority of the 90 minutes.