It might still be early days in the fifth season of the Indian Super League (ISL) but the pressure is on FC Pune City after a stuttering start to their campaign.
Having notched up their maiden playoff appearance last season, the Stallions were pegged to go far this time, especially on the back of retaining their two most prolific attackers in Marcelinho and Emiliano Alfaro.
Having parted ways with Ranko Popovic, Pune roped in former Delhi Dynamos coach Miguel Angel Portugal to guide the ship for the fifth edition. The Spaniard oversaw a disastrous first-half of Delhi’s campaign last season before a minor turnaround towards the end lifted them to the eighth spot on the table.
The possession-based style that Portugal brought to the Dynamos along with the confidence he bestowed on young Indian talents like Lallianzuala Chhangte, Vinit Rai and Nandhakumar Sekar was perhaps what attracted Pune management to rope him in.
The move did make sense with the Stallions retaining the core of their domestic talents in the form of Ashique Kuruniyan, Sarthak Golui, Rohit Kumar and Vishal Kaith.
Two matches into their latest campaign, Pune find themselves second from last in the table with just a solitary point to show for their efforts. Portugal’s men started their campaign at the home of the Spaniard’s former club and were lucky to come away with a point after being dominated for the majority of the game.
In the second game against Maharashtra rivals Mumbai City, two first-half goals from the Islanders were enough to quell any Pune response in the second period.
It is true that the Stallions have sorely missed the wizardry of Marcelinho with the Brazilian unavailable in the clash against Delhi due to his suspension being carried over from last season’s Super Cup. The forward only started on the bench in the loss to Mumbai, coming on in the second half to induce some much-needed urgency for Portugal’s men.
In both of Pune’s games so far, Portugal’s men have started brightly before fading away for the majority of the game. They have taken their sweet time to wake up again with the scoreboard pressure reflecting in their much improved second-half performances.
Pune are bearing all the hallmarks of Delhi’s first-half campaign last season. The side have enjoyed the majority of the possession as is Portugal’s mantra and have looked to defend with a high line. Just like the Dynamos were at this time of the year last season, Pune too have been toothless in the final third.
Portugal’s philosophy took some time to be in ingrained in Delhi’s system last season and a familiar script seems to be following him this time around too. By the time the league came to an end last season, Delhi’s system had become much more fluid and pleasing on the eye with the team bearing the stamp of a well-drilled unit.
That has not been the case so far for Pune, but, with the stakes as high as ever, the side cannot afford to make the same mistakes Delhi were guilty of last season. Time is of the essence for Pune if they want to remain in contention for a second consecutive playoff appearance and their next test promises to be crucial.
Back in the comforts of home, Pune welcome last season’s runner-up Bengaluru next and another defeat could very well derail their campaign before it has even taken flight. Also, last season, Bengaluru eliminated Pune in the play-offs. In four attempts, Pune could not beat Bengaluru at all in the 2017-18 season.
Lack of goals has been a killer for Pune so far with Diego Carlos' equaliser against Delhi the only one the side have scored so far. Marcelinho seems a certainty to start the clash after his exciting cameo against Mumbai and the onus will very much be on Pune to take the attack to Bengaluru.
Marko Stankovic, who is very important for Pune in midfield, will be expected to start as well.
They cannot afford another sluggish opening 45 minutes nor can they afford to take their time to be jolted into action. The Blues are bound to come all guns blazing and it will be up to the home side to make sure they make the best use of their home advantage.
Falling behind in the pecking order early into the season can have a domino effect on the rest of the campaign as Portugal himself knows that all too well.