Home advantage is one of the great placebos of football. England had it until Hungary ransacked them 6–3 at Wembley in 1953, and more contemporary instances of home advantage not swaying results in favour of teams include France’s Euro 2016 final defeat to Portugal in Paris, and Bayern Munich’s 2012 Champions League final loss to Chelsea in Munich.
In this Indian Super League (ISL) season, Pune City, interestingly, had had an away field advantage heading into their game against Chennaiyin FC in Chennai. The Orange-Purples were unbeaten away from home, and all four of their losses had come at the Balewadi Stadium, their homeground in Pune.
That unbeaten record, though, couldn’t last any longer. Chennaiyin inflicted the first away loss in the ongoing tournament on Pune City with a 2–0 win in a game that rarely set the pulses racing. The Stallions looked out of their depth in attack, and a goal on either side of the half-time break were enough for Chennaiyin to kill the game off.
It wasn’t a result that Pune City had hoped for after both of their last two outings. With only one change in the starting line-up in the form of Raju Yumnam coming in for Rahul Bheke, coach Antonio Habas looked for more of the same from his side after their win in Mumbai last Thursday.
But that one change made all the difference as the Stallions reverted to their early season mediocrity in attack. Bheke has been a vital attacking outlet for his team. His runs up the right wing, and ability to relentlessly deliver crosses have accounted for a major portion of what Pune City have done in an attacking sense this season. His mean long throws — even though not resulting in goals — have been central to the Stallions’ designs in attack.
Pune City’s recent resurgence owes much to their defensive solidity, but on this occasion, their rearguard let them down. That laid bare the Stallions’ lack of bite in attack as coming back from 2–0 down proved too big an ask.
Big Equatoguinean centre-back Eduardo was at fault for both goals. His aggressive positioning opened up uncovered space inside the box that led to the first Chennaiyin goal, while his mistimed attempt at heading clear man of the match Raphael Augusto’s floating cross resulted in Davide Succi’s goal that sealed the result.
It was a point of no return for Pune City from there on. With the lumbering Dramane Traore leading the line, not much could be expected in the way of goals. Traore has attempted 12 shots this term, but only one of them has been on target. Misfiring strikers cannot do much worse than him.
Habas shuffled his pack from a traditional 3–5–2 in the first half to a 3–4–2–1 in the second half. There were further formation morphs when, at 2–0 down, he took off Eduardo, and Pune City switched to an attacking 4–2–4 shape. Those were desperate measures in desperate times. Even Momar Ndoye, who has played the lowest minutes per game for the Stallions, was thrown in. Habas gesticulated from the touchline at every missed chance, but to no avail.
The Orange-Purples based their last two wins on a solid defensive base, but on an occasion when their defence proved leaky, they had no answers in attack.
Finding the perfect balance is difficult in a competition as short as the ISL, as Habas said before the game: “It is difficult for coaches to gel a team together in just one and half months and make them a strong team.” Pune City now have to get their act together quickly to have any chance of sneaking into the playoffs.
With only four games left in the league phase, the Stallions slipped to sixth in the table after their latest defeat. Next up for them is a home game against the free-scoring, table-topping Delhi Dynamos on Friday. Games in Pune haven’t been kind to the Stallions this season, but they’ll need to make their final game at home count.