ISL SPECIAL | BY NIKHIL JITENDRAN Follow Nikhil Jitendran on twitter
Autumn's unostentatious arrival into the bustling Maharashtrian urbanity of Pune is often characterized by the chromatic hue of sunlight - most often orange and red - that douses the Information Technology (IT) hub. The dawning embers of this time of the year mark a small period of rest and recalibration for the Punekars, considering they have just bid adieu to10 emphatic days of celebrations during the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi.
However, just like the two years preceeding 2016, the residents of this great city will instead shift their focus to matters on the football pitch, where they will root for their beloved Indian Super League (ISL) franchise, FC Pune City, with equal pomp and fervour, some of which will be unseen in other parts of the Subcontinent.
Can Pune's representatives in the nation's most watched domestic football tournament embody the hope, zest and determination of their fan base to finally deliver the title at the third time of asking? Or will it be a case of 'two steps too far' for the Balewadi-based team once again, as they mitigate the rapids of a fast and competitive ISL season ahead?
PERFORMANCE LAST SEASON
There can be only one word that strongly characterizes the 2015 ISL season for the Marathas - Pathetic. The team's abject spiral from mid-season title contenders to seventh hell also-rans was a shot in the head for the team's proprietors, viz. the Wadhwan group under Gaurav Modwel - Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the club - along with Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan.
They employment of David Platt, a former Manchester City assistant coach and Premier League title winner, in the position of the first team manager was seen as a strategic investment to ensure a winning spirit in the squad. Significant, often brawny, team refurbishment followed on from the first season as well.
Adrian Mutu was ushered in as a marquee for the team, while a number of stars of repute too joined the team. Tuncay Sanli, Nicky Shorey, Roger Johnson and Didier Zokora were added to an impressive Indian spine in the squad that included the likes of two ISL auction buys Jackichand Singh and Eugenson Lyngdoh alongside Gouramangi Moirangthem, Pritam Kotal, Bikash Jairu and others.
After a strong start that included four wins in six games - including on a 1-0 victory over defending champions Ateltico de Kolkata - Pune City tailed away drastically, winning none and drawing just three of the remaining eight games of the league season, thereby claiming the longest winless streak in the tournament. The Stallions limped over the finish line with four defeats on the trot, conceding 11 goals.
They finished with a sum total of 14 points, one LESSER than their points tally in the inaugural season of the world's fourth most watched domestic league. A seventh-place finish for the once title favourites seemed congruent with their form, with only the abject Kerala Blasters finishing below them on the ladder.
Camp Location – Spain and Pune
Placencia Under-19 0-7 FC Pune City
CD Bejar 2-5 FC Pune City
Moralo CP 0-4 FC Pune City
Avila 1-4 FC Pune City
Don Benito 0-2 FC Pune City
Merida FC 1-2 FC Pune City
FC Pune City Under-18 0-3 FC Pune City
FC Pune City 2-1 Ozone FC
FC Pune City 6-0 Air India
THE MANAGER - ANTONIO HABAS
After two seasons of misadventure, Pune City's penny has finally dropped at the ISL-tried and tested methods of former Ateltico de Kolkata coach Antonio Habas. The Spanish coach takes over from David Platt.
Having participated in two seasons of the football tournament, the pragmatic coach has amassed 13 wins in 33 matches. That may seem unimpressive, yet, coalscese his record on the field and it is a completely different story. He has won the 2014 edition of the ISL, winning just five games that season, while reaching the semi-finals last year, winning three more games, playing one fewer match. This means he had already begun acclimatizing himself to the league's format.
As Atletico de Kolkata chose not to renew their contract with the coach, Pune City swept in fully aware of the significant advantage an ISL familiar coach would bring to their success hungry set-up. Habas, a Pozoblanco-born man, has the likes of Valencia, Celta Vigo and Granada on his Curriculum Vitae.
Pune City wasted no time in accruing the core of their squad. One key pattern in many of their signings was the familiarity of Habas with some of the players who he considers important.
In the foreign contingent, Edel Bete, Bruno Arias, Jonatan Lucca were of significance in their previous teams' exploits, with Bete part of both ISL winning teams. Arias was key member of the NorthEast United squad under Cesar Farias and previously for Delhi Dynamos. He has scored two goals and assisted thrice in the ISL, in 22 appearances. Brazilian Lucca has flourished in the ISL as well, making 16 appearances last term under Zico, scoring three goals on the road to the final.
Other recruits include Eduardo Ferreira, Momar Ndoye, Pitu, Jesus Tato and Gustavo Gustavo Oberman and Anibal Zurdo. What's so surprising in all of these signings? Only Ferreira is a defender. The rest are midfielders and strikers.
The Stallions had roped in Eidur Gudjohnsen as marquee. However, their pre-season training in Spain saw the Icelander, alongside another foreign defender Andre Bikey, pick up injuries, that resulted in their withdrawl from this year's competition.
On the Indian front, the same pattern of Habas emerges. Augustin Fernandes, Rahul Bheke, Sanju Pradhan, Francis Fernandes, Arata Izumi, Narayan Das, Raju Yumnam and Zodingliana Ralte, were added to strengthen the spine of a team brimming with potential.
The Hrithik Roshan co-owned franchise have certainly looked to mitigate a hindrance that has seen them score just 17 goals last season and that is the addition of players who can score as well as assist plentiful. The likes of Obermans, Tato and Zurdo seem capable of pummeling the back of net, with veritable accuracy.
Atletico de Kolkata scored 26 goals last season en-route a semi-final spot, so if anything, it means Habas knows the key to unlocking defences with his team's strikers.
To focus on midfield's lack of involvement, last year only Eugeneson Lyngdoh seemed capable of producing some chances from the middle of the park, considering the wayward season the ilk of Jackichand Singh, Lenny Rodrigues and James Bailey had. This year however, he is assisted by Arata, Arias, Lucca, and Pitu who all seem to have the creative ability. Not only this, the right mix of Indian and foreign payers in the middle of the park will ensure the team remains competitive for the second ball, something which they conceded ground to haplessly last season in numerous defeats.
The Gaurav Modwel chaired franchise have also swung the axe in terms of personnel with the retention of just five players from last season's abject campaign. Replacing deadwood with a cluster of ISL winning experienced players will certainly imbue the squad of spirit it seemed devoid of after round four in the previous campaign.
One can't help but observe Pune City and conclude that the franchise seems the perfect blueprint of an Antonio Habas side.
Defenders - Yes, Pune City shipped in 23 goals, the third highest number of goals conceded on the table. This is a concern, considering this year they haead into the ISL, with relatively few changes at the back, only Edel Bete taking over from Steve Simonsen. Andre Bikey's injury means the franchise will dip back into the market for a central defender, but with relatively little foreign cover in defense as compared to other parts of the pitch, one wonders if Habas is playing on a knife edge.
Eugenson Lyngdoh - By far India's best midfielder, the Indian will be sorely missed for the first four matches of the campaign, owing to his Asian Football Confederations (AFC) Cup commitments with Bengaluru FC. How will this affect the dynamic of the squad, considering the excellent form he's been in? And what would the time-frame with which he'd have to be acclimatized to the squad?
Marquee-less - The franchise has lost it's first choice marquee to inury. Gudjohnsen had adapted well to his new Spanish coach's methods according to reports and with the ISL in the offing, it seems the need to sign a marquee and adapt him to the squad will not just take time, but a lot of effort as well, something that may be lost on the franchise during the initial encounters.
Apoula Edel, who bears a striking resemblance to cricketer Chris Gayle, will be entrusted to carry the franchise to the ISL title. What's striking is that he is looking to win his third consecutive title in India. Having a promising record in goal for the Kolkata and Chennai franchise, the Wadhwan co-owned will hope the Armenian wears his best gloves for the franchise's must-win campaign, considering the lack of foreign defenders, with the exception of Eduardo, in front of him.
The former Indian international quickly gained popularity with Kolkata fans, netting five goals and assisting one while at ATK. Skillful and adaptable in the middle of the park, the Pune-resident, who still calls the city his home, will look to ensure it is memorable as his stomping ground with an ISL title win.
Goalkeepers: A. Edel, A. Bhattacharya, V. Kaith
Defenders: R.Bheke, G. Singh, D, Ravanan, N. Das, Augustine Fernandes, Z. Ralte, R. Yumnam, E. Ferreira
Midfielders: , E. Lyngdoh, L. Rodrigues, M Maithani, Pitu, B. Arias, J. Lucca, A. izumi, F. Fernandes, S. Pradhan
Forwards: A. Zurdo, G. Oberman, J. Tato, M. Ndoye
“This certainly is one of the most professionally managed club in the league and changing their fortunes will be a challenge that I am eagerly looking forward to"
- Antonio Habas