ISL 2018-19: With strong core and talented youth, onus on Miguel Angel Portugal to lead FC Pune City to first title
With a strong core and promising young talents, FC Pune City can build on their semi-final finish last season and challenge for their first ISL title.
After failing to qualify for the Indian Super League semi-finals four years in a row, FC Pune City finally broke the duck last season when they made it to the last-four under Ranko Popovic. The Serb left the club at the end of the season and the Stallions roped in former Brazil U-17 and U-20 World Cup winning-coach Marcos Paqueta.
However, within a month, the Brazilian terminated his contract to join Brazilian giants Botafogo, leaving Pune in an awkward situation. The club moved swiftly and brought in Miguel Angel Portugal, who had left Delhi Dynamos at the end of last season.
Much was expected from Delhi Dynamos last season after the Lions finished in the top four in the two previous seasons before. However, the capital club finished in eighth place and also went out in the qualifying round in the Super Cup.
Despite finishing a disappointing eight, Delhi ended the season on the back of a six-match unbeaten run which included credible draws against three of the four semi-finalists as well as a 5-1 thrashing of Mumbai. Portugal went back to Spain where he managed Granada for a couple of months before Pune came calling.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the coaching staff, Pune did well to keep hold of their best players in the off-season. Even as ATK poached a number of star players from other teams, the Stallions were able to convince their attacking pair of Marcelinho and Emiliano Alfaro to turn out in the Pune orange for one more season at least.
Popovic heavily relied on captain Marcelinho and his deputy Alfaro last season and employed a direct style of football to bring out the best in the duo. That meant managing to get the ball to Marcelinho and Alfaro in the attacking third and hoping that the South Americans could conjure up moments of magic. The duo formed a lethal partnership in front of goal and combined to score 17 of 30 goals Pune scored last season.
Pune's strength turned out to be their weakness come the semi-final clash against Bengaluru. Marcelinho and Alfaro were expertly shackled by the well-drilled Bengaluru defence and without a Plan B to fall back on, Pune lost 3-1 on aggregate.
Pune have addressed the over-reliance on their attacking pair by signing Iain Hume, ISL's all-time top-scorer, as well as India international Robin Singh to take some of the pressure off.
While Hume is recovering from a knee injury which will sideline him until the end of the year, his presence in the team will be key. In the Canadian, Pune have a proven goal-scorer and a player who has experience in playing in big matches.
The 40-day break in December and January will also provide Hume with time to get familiar to Portugal's style of play. When he does return to the team, Hume will be like a new signing for the club.
In new coach Portugal, Pune have a coach who prefers a possession-based style of play. While it took him time to implement his style of play in Delhi, his side scored 27 goals with only the four semi-finalists able to manage more. The challenge for him is to be able to get the Pune team, used to being more direct, to play the passing game, and to do it in quick time.
Portugal's Delhi, however, had the worst defensive record as he saw his defence ship in 37 goals last season. With Pune, defence won't be a headache for the Spaniard. In Vishal Kaith, he has a reliable shot-stopper who finished last season with seven cleansheets, most in the league.
Gurtej Singh and Rafa Lopez formed a reliable centre-back pairing in front of Kaith. With Lopez leaving for Spain at the end of the season, Pune have signed former Bolton Wanderers and Nottingham Forrest player Matt Mills to replace the Spaniard. The also brought on board Martin Diaz to give them options in the heart of defence.
In the full-back positions, Sahil Panwar and Sarthak Golui repaid the faith placed on them by Popovic last season as the duo enjoyed a fruitful season. Pune have signed the experienced pair of Ashutosh Mehta and Keenan Almeida to add to their defensive ranks.
Marcos Tebar was one of Pune's best players last season but the Spaniard was not happy with how he was dropped to the bench for both the semi-finals and subsequently left the club to rejoin Dynamos. His exit is a loss to the team as he would have flourished under Portugal's tutelage in the heart of midfield. Pune have brought on former Celta Vigo player Jonathan Vila to replace Tebar.
Deployed in a defensive midfield role by Popovic, Adil Khan became a vital component of the Pune side. The Goan, who can also play in defence, acted as the perfect foil for Tebar as the duo dictated play from deep. Khan also proved to be a threat from set-pieces and was Pune's third-highest goalscorer last season with four to his name. The onus will be on Khan and Vila to make the Pune midfield tick. To provide competition to the duo, Pune have signed India U-23 player Shankar Sampingiraj. Pune also retained the services of Marko Stankovic and 21-year-old Rohit Kumar, who impressed in his debut season.
Perhaps the players who most benefit from Portugal's arrival will be the young Indian players in the Pune side. At Delhi, Portugal allowed the likes of Lallianzuala Chhangte and Nandhakumar to play fearlessly and the duo made their chances count. In Pune, Portugal will have an equally talented pair of wingers in Ashique Kuruniyan and new singing Nikhil Poojari to work on along with reserve squad forward, Jakob Vanlalhimpuia who impressed Portugal in the preseason.
On paper, Pune have a balanced side with a strong core and promising young talents capable of mounting a title challenge. What needs to be seen is how quickly Portugal manages to get his new team to adapt to his style of play.
FC Pune City squad
Goalkeepers: Vishal Kaith, Anuj Kumar, Kamaljit Singh
Defenders: Ashutosh Mehta, Gurtej Singh, Lalchhuanmawia Fanai, Martin Diaz, Matt Mills, Nim Dorjee Tamang, Sahil Panwar, Sarthak Golui, Keenan Almeida
Midfielders: Marko Stankovic, Alwyn George, Rohit Kumar, Adil Khan, Shankar Sampingiraj, Jonathan Vila
Strikers: Marcelinho, Emiliano Alfaro, Ashique Kuruniyan, Robin Singh, Gabriel Fernandes, Jakob Vanlalhimpuia, Diego Carlos, Nikhil Poojari, Iain Hume
The former East Bengal winger, a product of United Punjab FC, moves on a free transfer and joins the Blues ahead of their upcoming AFC Cup playoff stage clash against Eagles FC.
The 25-year-old, who most recently represented Ligue 2 side Chateauroux on loan from Belgian First Division A side Beerschot, joins on a two-year deal with an optional one-year extension.
Kolkata-born Golui rose through the ranks with the AIFF Elite Academy, and has represented clubs in the I-League and the Indian Super League.