It is funny how things work out sometimes. FC Pune City had spent three seasons plotting their way into the playoffs of the Indian Super League, to no avail. The lead up to the 2017-18 season featured an extended feud between manager and ownership followed by the sacking of the manager, Antonio Lopez Habas, two months before the season starts. In walks Ranko Popovic, who gets very little time to work with a newly assembled squad from a player auction, a team he had not picked. This team then proceeds to play the best football Pune have ever played in the ISL and make the semifinals for the first time.
Of course, it helped that Pune had a very good squad. Their foreign contingent was one of the strongest in the league and there was a fair sprinkling of young, promising Indian players. None of the Indian players were household names and it is to Popovic’s immense credit that they developed through the course of the season. The side were an attractive watch and were solid at both ends of the pitch without being spectacular. Emiliano Alfaro and Marcelinho, who had come off great seasons with NorthEast United and Delhi Dynamos respectively, contributed the creativity and goals.
A defence line built around Indian players had a strangely mixed season, conceding 21 goals in the league phase, but amazingly enough, only 6 times during their travels. Some of the inconsistency might have to do with rotation all around the squad, except in the middle of defence. Popovic preferred versatile players who could play in multiple areas of the pitch and game time was spread around.
A special Sunil Chhetri hattrick was all that stood between them and a place in the final and Pune were happy overall with how the season panned out. Goalkeepers, Vishal Kaith and Kamaljit Singh, were called up by the national team for the SAFF Cup. Sarthak Golui and Ashique Kuruniyan were part of the squad too and Popovic can take a lot of credit for their progress.
This time around, Pune look even stronger. They have retained the core of the squad that did well last season and added more quality and steel. They now have experience in defence with the signings of Matt Mills, Martin Diaz, Keenan Almeida and Ashutosh Mehta. The additions in midfield will supplement the talent already available. Robin Singh, who will be hungry to prove himself again after a couple ofw underwhelming seasons, and Iain Hume, the all-time highest ISL goal scorer complete what looks like a well-equipped squad.
Popovic could have done wonders with this team, but he has not been retained and the onus falls on Miguel Angel Portugal to get the most out of this group of players. Miguel did some good work with a young Delhi team last season, ending the season strongly there. He was frustrated at the budget available to him and cited Pune’s spending as an example of how he would have liked things to be at the Dynamos. He did not have to wait long to get an opportunity with the team he admired from afar and now he must deliver.
Last season’s finish: Semifinalist (Regular Season – Fourth)
FlyingGoalie Prediction For This Season: Second (Qualify For The Playoffs)