Pune City have been the great enigmas of this edition of the Indian Super League (ISL). They have struggled for consistent performances, and their 1–0 defeat to an unimpressive NorthEast United side was in keeping with the running narrative.
Fresh from a dynamic performance in their last game against Delhi Dynamos, it seemed odd that the Orange-Purples set out to play without any verve against their beleaguered opponents. NorthEast, unlike Delhi, were in the middle of a rot, having not won since 12 October.
As with most games in the early part of this season, a single strike was enough to seal the result in what happened to be one of the poorest matches in the ongoing ISL, at least in terms of overall quality. Quite a fall for Pune City, who had played out a fascinating game against Delhi last time out that ended 4–3 in their favour.
It was perhaps understandable that the likes of Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Jesus Tato remained on the bench, and Jonatan Lucca was substituted for the first time this season. It was in the 74th minute with the score at 0–0 that Lucca — Pune’s creative fulcrum — was taken off, a sign of what coach Antonio Habas probably had in mind.
Pune City’s opponents in their last two games are Kerala Blasters and Atletico de Kolkata (ATK), two teams that are level on points with the Stallions. Quite conceivably, Habas might have felt a draw with NorthEast would be a good result to boost their playoffs chances with both Kerala and ATK set to face each other next Tuesday.
That plan, however, backfired as Romaric’s inch-perfect free-kick in the 81st minute meant another team — NorthEast — has now joined the race for the playoffs, with Pune stranded where they had been.
In a game that lacked intensity from kick-off, there was little in the way of final third action at both ends of the pitch. It was symbolic that rather than something to do with the game, two unnecessary scuffles at the end of the first half were the major talking points in the opening 45 minutes.
The Pune defence remained comfortable throughout, despite some clumsiness on Gouramangi Singh’s part that resulted in two penalty appeals from the home side. Eduardo commanded the back line with his front-footed approach, and goalkeeper Edel Bete was barely troubled. The Stallions sat in a mid-to-low block when out of possession, and kept out their opponents with little effort.
If it looked damning on NorthEast’s part for not being dominant at home, it was even worse for Pune who failed to take advantage of the hosts’ shortcomings. There was a hint of complacency in the way the Stallions approached the game — excusable since they had played their last game on Friday — and the way they went about their job was surprising.
The result went against them, and their dreams of entering virgin territory in the playoffs hangs in the balance, for now. A draw would have given the Stallions a point advantage over Kerala and ATK, a win would have taken them past Delhi into second. But the loss now has them barely hanging on to fourth place.
With only two games left in the season for Pune City, their annual experiment with staff and management looks likely to tread a similar route, one that ends in disappointment. Last season, it took 22 points for Delhi to finish fourth; the maximum points Pune can accrue this season is 21. Only wins in their final two matches could help the Stallions’ cause. Even that might not be enough.