Pune: As the referee blew the final whistle at the end of an absorbing 90-minute contest at the Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex in Balewadi, FC Pune City coach Ranko Popovic and Bengaluru FC coach Albert Roca exchanged a smile and a warm embrace on the sidelines. The two coaches heaved a sigh of relief as the end-to-end first leg of their semi-final ended in a stalemate.
Ahead of the crucial tie, many would have expected the game to be a thrilling contest, if not a goal-fest. It turned out to be an end-to-end game, but without the goals.
Both Pune and Bengaluru started the game nervously, looking eager to avoid errors early on in the game. Surprisingly, the hosts hit the ground running and managed to find spaces convincingly with their fast gameplay in a conventional 4-4-2 set-up. Looking at Pune’s fluidity in the middle of the park, Bengaluru were taken aback initially but they took the pace off the game quickly.
Pune continued to spray quick passes through the middle causing a headache for former Pune midfielder Lenny Rodrigues, who was caught napping in the early stages of the game. However, despite putting the visitors under pressure on multiple occasions, Pune lacked sharpness up front. Slowly, the game turned out to be a scrappy encounter with a few unnecessary fouls committed by both clubs. Pune’s Emiliano Alfaro also had a disagreement with the referee after a teammate was brought down. Popovic too seemed unhappy with the decision going against his side but he tried to remain composed, as he has already been suspended for his antics on the sidelines.
The hosts surged forward but without spelling danger for Bengaluru. At the half-hour mark, Pune goalkeeper Vishal Kaith channelised his inner David de Gea to keep out an incredible free-kick from Bengaluru skipper Sunil Chhetri. The shot was brilliantly tipped over the crossbar by the youngster as Bengaluru tried to chase an away goal.
At the hearts of both the defences, Bengaluru’s Juanan Antonio and John Johnson and Rafael Lopez and Gurtej Singh of Pune emerged as the standout performers at the end of the first quarter.
A lot has been spoken about both teams’ attacking prowess, but on Wednesday, the defences were tight and compact. One of the reasons why the scoreline remained 0-0 after 90 minutes was because both teams had a settled centre-back pairing throughout the league stage. Out of the 19 matches, Spaniard Juanan has started in 15 while the Englishman Johnson has 14 starts to his name. Pune’s Lopez has started in each of the 19 matches and Gurtej has played 17 matches. So, it was always going to be difficult for Marcelinho, Alfaro, Chhetri and Miku to cruise past defenders.
The attackers did everything right but fluffed their lines in the final third. After the restart, Pune controlled the tempo of the game but failed to break the deadlock, owing to lack of sharpness. As far as creativity is concerned, Pune played like a well-oiled machine. Similarly, Bengaluru too failed to capitalise on clear chances as skipper Chhetri headed the ball wide on the 56th minute. It was one of the rare occasions where Pune’s defence was caught napping and the Indian national team captain should have opened the account for Bengaluru.
It became frustrating for both the sides and even for the neutrals, as the attackers just couldn’t convert their chances. With 15 minutes remaining on the clock, another opportunity arrived for Pune when Alfaro and Marcelinho combined smoothly through the middle but were disappointed to see youngster Isaac Vanmalsawma mishit the volley. That clearly summed up their performance on the night.
Any other day, the score would have been 1-0 or 2-0 in favour of Pune, who were not favourites against the much-balanced Bengaluru. Those missed opportunities could prove costly for Popovic’s side given Bengaluru’s record at home this season.
However, to give credit where it’s due, Pune’s defence did an outstanding job to prevent Chhetri, Miku and Dimas Delgado from combining up front. But the men in orange and purple were the opposite in front of the goal, registering just two shots on target out of 13 chances. Bengaluru were equally disappointing attack-wise with just two shots on target after creating five chances.
Popovic’s trust in his young players — Kaith, Rohit Kumar, Sarthak Golui — almost paid dividends in the first leg but he wants more from his side for the away tie in Bengaluru. "They (youngsters) have to believe in what we are working. That is the reason why we have reached so far. I believe in my players but sometimes I have to be harsh with them. They are young players and it’s not that easy for them. We have to be constant,” said Popovic.
“We created many chances but we lacked concentration in the final third. But to play against a top side like Bengaluru, we had to show what we are capable of,” the Serb added.
Bengaluru had defeated Pune 3-1 at home during the league stage. However, coach Roca is wary of Pune’s good away form. “Playoffs are a bit different. It was not possible to score today. We can’t cry about it but we are able to score one more goal than our opponent. We have the control of the situation and in front of the home fans. Pune will not give up,” said Roca.
Pune could have nicked at least a goal or two after showing their fluidity and pace upfront. Despite dominating favourites Bengaluru in almost every department, lack of sharpness and finishing let them down in what could’ve been a huge statement from Popovic’s side.
Updated Date: Mar 08, 2018 13:58 PM