Bengaluru: When Bengaluru FC decided to shift from the I-League to the Indian Super League (ISL) last year, they were instantly recognised as one of the favourites to win the title. Now after playing 19 matches in the league and finishing top of the table in their debut season, Bengaluru are just one step away from clinching a spot in the final as they take on FC Pune City in the second leg of their semi-final clash at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Sunday.
Under Ranko Popovic, FC Pune City have made quite a name for themselves by playing an attacking brand of football that saw them qualify for the semis for the first time, having finished fourth in the league stages. Going into the second leg of the semi-final, pressure is on Pune as they face a tough task of beating Bengaluru in their own backyard.
When the two sides met in the first leg in Pune on Wednesday, they played out a forgettable, scrappy goaless draw. It was a match where both the teams took a cautious approach and hardly showed any intent, though Pune were slightly better in terms of the chances created. On Sunday, both clubs have to significantly improve from their last performance and should rely on their core strength to emerge victorious.
Playing at their home, Bengaluru will be hoping that their attacking players live up to the expectations. Miku and skipper Sunil Chhetri have been quite exceptional in front of the goal this season and coach Albert Roca would want his two best attacking players to find their groove as soon as possible against Pune.
In the first leg, Roca's approach was to make his team sit back and defend. With regard to that game plan, his team did well, but there are few areas where his team should have done a lot better. Especially in the midfield, where the likes of Toni Dovale and Boithang Haokip looked out of sorts. Roca may change his midfield for the all-important second leg of the semi-final, with the likely scenario being bringing in Australian Erik Paartalu and employing the speedy Udanta Singh on the wings.
Bengaluru's defence was impressive in the first leg, so it's highly unlikely that Roca would change the set-up. John Johnson and Juanan were up to the task against the likes of Marcelinho and Emiliano Alfaro and they will hope to replicate the same performance on Sunday.
The presence of head coach Popovic on the touchline for the match is positive news for FC Pune City. Popovic was earlier suspended for his comments on referees but on Saturday, the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) disciplinary committee provisionally removed the ban.
Pune did most of the things right in the first leg, so not many changes are expected in their line-up. Popovic will want his strike force of Marcelinho and Alfaro to be more clinical in front of the goal. The Brazilian Marcelinho was a live wire when the two teams met last time but he could have done much better in terms of finishing.
Pune's defence will have to be at their best to counter the threat from Miku and Chhetri. Adil Khan and Sahil Panwar played key roles in some of Pune's victories this season and Popovic will expect the duo to maintain the consistency.
Another crucial factor in Pune's run this season has been the form of their goalkeeper Vishal Kaith. The 21-year-old has grown in confidence as the season progressed and showed maturity in his decision-making while also pulling off important saves. He has been an exception as this season has now become infamous for goalkeeping blunders.
As Pune's assistant coach Vladica Grujic said in the pre-match press conference, the only way to qualify for the final now is to score goals. This season, both Pune and Bengaluru have showed that they have an appetite for scoring goals. Unlike the last match, the second leg is expected to be high on adrenaline and tempo and thanks to the away goal rule, things can work in Pune's favour more than that of Bengaluru. On the hand, Roca's team will look to start well. They will try to dominate the proceedings right from the word go and try for that vital opening goal to put pressure on Pune.
There's not much to separate the two sides, though Bengaluru have big-match experience. They will go hard against their opponents to make sure their dream of winning the title in their debut season is alive, while Pune will hope that they have one more good game so that they can do something special on 17 March.
Updated Date: Mar 11, 2018 15:19 PM