Venue: Balewadi Sports Complex, Pune
Kickoff: Wednesday, January 29 2013, 18:30 IST
Last August, Pune FC were rewarded for their hard work off the field with the national and AFC club license. They were the only club to get it, albeit on appeal, and a result of that license Pune were chosen as India’s representatives in the qualifying playoff stage of the Asian Champions League (ACL). The club was only formed in 2007 but have already become the benchmark for all other clubs in the country because of their professionalism but on the pitch too they have been consistent as the team hasn’t finished outside the top five in their previous four top flight seasons. On Wednesday the I-League runners-up will be playing their first-ever continental match so it will truly be a memorable occasion for the owners, the Piramal family, but their team’s form coming into this historic fixture isn’t encouraging. Mike Snoei’s side had a dismal Federation Cup campaign as they were eliminated from the group stage with the one point from three matches coming against second division’s Eagles FC.
This campaign was expected to be transitional as Snoei had to replace Derrick Pereira, who had been in charge of Pune’s first 104 I-League games. There had been some changes in personnel as well but Pune started the I-League brilliantly under Snoei as they managed 20 points from the first nine games and thus looked like genuine title contenders. But they endured a dismal December with just four points out of a possible 15 and the poor run continued in the Federation Cup also. The major problem for Pune has been in attack as regular starter Riga Mustapha isn’t a genuine centre forward and thus has struggled to be the focal point that Raul Fabiani was proving to be earlier in the season. There is no doubt about Riga’s class and experience but he would possibly be better off playing either on the flanks or just behind the main striker. The only real target man in their squad is academy graduate Thongkhosiem Haokip who is 20 years old and has only three I-League starts to his name.
It’s unfair to put all the blame on their attack because earlier in the campaign even when they were struggling to find the back of the net, Pune’s defence was immaculate with only three goals conceded in the first eight games. But the back four has been leaking goals regularly now with no clean sheets in their last nine matches in all competition. The midfield remains their strength but that too flopped in the Federation Cup so Snoei currently has issues to address all over the pitch. However Pune are a young squad that is going to improve with experience and this playoff gives them a chance to start fresh with the knowledge that even a defeat will see them competing in the group stage of the AFC Cup. On the other hand a win will set up an exciting clash away at Thailand’s Muangthong United in round two next week so that should give the Red Lizards enough incentive to put behind their indifferent form since December and produce an improved display. Familiarity with the conditions also could favour them in a match that might require extra time and even penalties.
The reason why Pune’s appearance at this round is historic is not only because they have been formed recently but also because Indian clubs have only featured in qualifying stage of the ACL thrice in the past. Pune’s opponents Hanoi T&T also don’t have much history as they were formed only in 2006 but they have won their domestic league twice and even played in an Asian competition before (AFC Cup 2011). Getting a playoff slot in the ACL after two years is big for Vietnam football too but unlike India, their clubs have played in the group stage of Asia’s biggest club competition for five straight editions between 2004 and 2008. So for Vietnam this fixture isn’t as big as it is for Pune and Indian football in general but the V-League champions have a responsibility to give a good account of themselves especially considering the heavy investment on their first team.
If the worry for Pune is form, Hanoi T&T have concerns regarding their preparation because the domestic season in Vietnam only started in January with no competitive action between September to December after the completion of last season’s V-League. Hanoi T&T have had only four games this season with two wins and two defeats (one of them on penalties in the Super Cup) so that is clearly not the ideal preparation for a fixture of this magnitude. Home advantage also makes a difference as in terms of quality V-League and I-League are pretty similar (at least that’s what the AFC coefficients suggest – I-League are placed slightly higher than the V-League) and Hanoi T&T won’t enjoy such comforts even if they get the better of Pune as trips to Thailand and then Australia awaits them.
East Bengal and 2012 Vietnam Cup winners Sai Gon Xuan Thanh were paired in the same group in last year’s AFC Cup with the Kolkata giants being held in the away match but comfortably victorious at home. But besides those two meetings, there haven’t been too many meetings between India and Vietnam at club level in the recent past. Pune must have done their homework about Hanoi T&T through videos and the Vietnam club likewise but the bigger challenge for the V-League champions will be to adapt to the alien conditions as physically it won’t be easy for their players especially considering the little action they have had this season. As a result Hanoi T&T are slight underdogs but they would be looking to benefit from that tag. Unlike Pune, they have a couple of genuine goal scorers in Gonzalo Marronkle and Hoang Vu Samson and the duo would be confident of causing problems to the Indian club’s out-of-form backline.
Pune FC: WLDLL
Going back to the end of November, Pune have managed just one win in their last nine games but their home form in the I-League is encouraging with just five points dropped in six matches.
Hanoi T&T FC: DLWWL
One of those two defeats in the last five games came in a penalty shootout so their loss to Ninh Binh last week was actually the first defeat in 90 minutes in 12 matches.
The only major absentee for Pune is young Nikhil Kadam who missed the Federation Cup as well with an injury. It remains to be seen whether Snoei fields two upfront because of their recent problems upfront but once again central midfielders Douhou Pierre and Arata Izumi will be the key with newly-signed winger Gabriel Fernandes also showing great form in the Federation Cup.
The Vietnam club have travelled to Pune with only 16 players and it remains to be seen how many changes coach Phan Thanh Hung makes to the lineup that started in the disappointing 3-1 home defeat to Ninh Binh. Argentinian forward Marronkle is doubtful due to a small knock but given the importance of this match, the 29-year-old is likely to start.
Possible XI: Duong Hong Son; Nguyen Quoc Long, Sam Gallagher, Nguyen Van Bien, Nguyen Hong Tien; Hughton Hector, Cao Sy Cuong, Nguyen Van Quyet, Pham Thanh Luong; Gonzalo Marronkle, Hoang Vu Samson
Pune FC – Douhou Pierre
The Ivorian has been one of Pune’s best players in the I-League as he is their biggest creative force but Douhou had a dismal Federation Cup campaign and thus will be eager to get back to his best in this historic fixture.
Hanoi T&T – Hoang Vu Samson
With Marronkle not being 100% fit, there will be a lot more responsibility on Samson and the Nigerian-born striker has been in good form this season, scoring in each of the Vietnam club’s four competitive matches.Published 28 Jan 2014, 19:11 IST