BY NISANTH V EASWAR Follow @Niktheblue94 on Twitter
The kick-off of the fourth edition of Indian Super League (ISL) is less than two weeks away and as 10 teams prepare for four months of football extravaganza, Goal takes a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team in their hunt for the trophy.
First up are FC Pune City, who are looking for their first-ever knockout adventure after three relatively disappointing seasons.
Aiming for a fresh start, Pune City brought in players like Kean Lewis, Isaac Vanmalsawma, Nim Dorjee Tamang, Wayne Vaz and goalkeeper Vishal Kaith during the Indian player draft. They also managed to rope in last season's top scorer Marcelinho to boost their attacking firepower ahead of the quest for glory.
However, in what was a slight deviation from set plans, they had to part ways with coach Antonio Habas and brought in Serbian coach Ranko Popovic.
FC Pune City's squad in full:
Goalkeepers: Vishal Kaith, Kamaljit Singh and Anuj Kumar.
Defenders: Rafa Lopez, Damir Grgic, Nim Dorjee Tamang, Adil Khan, Pawan Kumar, Lalchhuanmawia, Wayne Vaz and Gurtej Singh.
Midfielders: Jewel Raja, Marcos Tebar, Robertino Pugliara, Jonatan Lucca, Baljit Sahni, Isaac Vanmalsawma, Ashique Kuruniyan, Rohit Kumar, Harpreet Singh and Kean Lewis.
Forwards: Diego Carlos, Emiliano Alfaro, Marcelinho and Ajay Singh.
After plying his trade in Spain, Spanish centre-back Rafa Lopez made the switch to India in the summer and the former Getafe defender is all set to be the stronghold of Pune defence. Boasting more than 200 appearances for clubs such as Getafe and Valladolid, Lopez will help tighten the Stallions' defence which is crucial if they are to finally break their knockout hoodoo this season.
At 6 ft 1 in, Marcos Tebar is the seasoned steel in midfield that Pune needed and could turn out to be a vital cog in Popovic's bid for the title. The experienced campaigner will once again try his best to boss around in midfield, after already having tasted ISL with Delhi last year.
And Tebar is not the only former Delhi Dynamos player in Pune's ranks this season. The Pune-based outfit managed to convince Marcelinho to put pen to paper for Pune City, warding off understandable interest from his former ISL club. The Brazilian forward notched 10 goals and 5 assists in 14 appearances last term and Popovic will be hoping he can continue from where he left off last year.
Vishal Kaith is expected to be the last line of defence for the Stallions and it's not like he has always had to do that. Pune City's goalkeepers are inexperienced and that surely is a cause for concern. After being a substitute for Pune City last year, Kaith is set to be handed first-team duty between the sticks with Kamaljit Singh and Anuj Kumar acting as the back-ups.
Of the three goalies that are in the squad, Kamaljit is the oldest at 21 and such inexperience at a vital area of the pitch could prove to be costly.
Overall, Pune City have opted for potential over experience this year. And while that isn't a wrong approach, they lack a strong Indian contingent and could have done better at the ISL draft which took place in July. A few notable promising youngsters aside, the Indian players in Pune's ranks don't stand out.
Of the forwards that Pune have, injury prone Emiliano Alfaro and is the only out-and-out striker who can claim a regular place in the first team. Ajay Singh has a difficult task at his hand to fill in whenever required if Alfaro ends up crocked. Brazilian forward Diego Carlos has hardly played much competitive football recently and that could turn out to be a problem for Delhi.
In fact, FC Pune City have a lot of players who lack competitive match experience in the previous one to two seasons. Wayne Vaz, Rohit Kumar, Roberto Pugliara, Harpreet Singh, Lalchhuanmawia etc have played extremely few matches as per records which do not augur well for the Stallions.
In midfielder Isaac Vanmalsawma and defender Nim Dorjee Tamang, Pune City have bagged two promising Indian talents. Both players plied their trade at Shillong Lajong in the I-League and will be seen in Pune colours in ISL this season.
Isaac plays as a midfielder whereas Tamang is usually deployed at the centre of defence. Isaac and Tamang promise to showcase their exciting talents to the rest of the country in what could turn out to be a breakthrough year for them with Pune City.
The Danger Man
Brazilian Marcelo Leite Pereira, more commonly known as Marcelinho, is the star signing for FC Pune City this year. Delhi Dynamos director Rohan Sharma, in his interview with Goal, had confirmed efforts to bring him back to the club where he scored goals for fun to eventually end up as the ISL Golden Boot winner last year. Delhi's loss could be Pune's gain, as they swooped in with an offer to convince the ISL 2016 topscorer to sign for them and spearhead their attack alongside Alfaro and Diego Carlos.
While Pune City's squad does not make them convincing title favourites, they have enough potential in them to record a much better finish this year compared to the first three editions of the tournament. With a bit of luck that's sometimes needed in football, they could finally break the virtual barrier and move past the league stage in ISL 4 which kicks off on November 17.