It was a disappointing first ISL season for FC Pune City, and they knew that they had to right a few wrongs from season 1. That is precisely what they have done this year. From being an also ran last season to one of the best teams in the league, it has truly been a roller-coaster of a ride for the team from Pune co-owned by Hrithik Roshan.
Correcting last season’s mistakes
Last year, a huge disappointment for Pune was the lack of goals, despite boasting a formidable front line, at least on paper. The likes of David Trezeguet, Dudu Omagbemi and Jermaine Pennant flattered to deceive, as the Punekars finished 6th in the table. The Indians in the squad as well didn't put in the sort of performances that were expected.
This time though, they went down to business straight from the auction. They splurged on securing the signings of Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Jackichand Singh, and made some shrew purchases in the form of Gouramangi Singh and overseas players like Didier Zokora, Adrian Mutu and Tuncay Sanli.
That approach has paid off as Pune find themselves in second place after nine games, with 14 points on the board. Kalu Uche and Tuncay have spearheaded Pune's rise, scoring 4 and 3 goals respectively.
However, Pune's trump card this season has been the ability of individual players to step up when needed. This was epitomised by Jackichand's fine goal in their 1-0 win against Kolkata, and Lyngdoh's fantastic header to equalize against Goa.
The defense too has held firm. It has been marshalled superbly by the experienced Roger Johnson, who has had fantastic support from Gouramangi Singh and Dharmaraj Ravanan.
The Tamil Nadu man, in particular, has been superb for David Platt. He has been used across the back four, and has put in consistently good performances. Ravanan has done his job very well, allowing the more skilled players to express themselves.
In midfield, both Lenny Rodrigues and Israil Gurung have showed their ability in flashes. The challenge for both, as the business end of the tournament nears, is to find the consistency that separates the great from the good.
The midfield partnership of Zokora and Lyngdoh has been very solid and their ability to play a box to box role has been very important for the team in their pursuit of the right squad balance. Their tendency to play with wingers in each match has also helped the team adopt an attacking approach in matches.
Arindam Bhattacharya was fantastic in goal last year, but this time around, his place has been usurped by Steve Simonsen, who has played every single minute for Pune this season.
The former Stoke goalkeeper has put in fabulous performances to keep Pune in games, and has brought a lot of calm and composure to the role.
The presence of David Platt as their coach and a highly experienced training staff has shown the players that the management are dedicated to winning this season’s competition and that they are ready to do whatever it takes to ensure that the players get the best possible infrastructure and technical help.
Overall, as Platt himself would concede, a little more consistency all round would have seen them as runaway leaders by now, but they are in the playoff places, and look certain to stay there.
Can Pune challenge for the title?
At this point, Pune look like one of the most solid outfits in the league this season and making the semi-finals should be the least they expect to achieve. With a consistent frontline, a solid midfield and a good defence, they have all the tools necessary to mount a title challenge.
The coaching of David Platt has kept the team on their toes and the experienced Englishman has ensured that his team play an attractive brand of football, yet do their best to retain a good defensive shape.
His constant rotation of players has helped keep the team fresh and indicated to them that they need to show consistency in order to merit a place in the team on matchday.
The biggest advantage for Pune is that in the likes of Mutu, Zokora, Tuncay, Johnson and Nicky Shorey, they have players who have played on the big stage before, and that should hold them in good stead as the semifinals loom large.
Pune have a good chance of winning this year’s competition and it is very important that they don’t give it away now after having fought so hard to reach this stage.
The owners and team management made a statement in terms of their recruitment drive and have brought quality players into the team, who are doing the job on the pitch and validating the belief of the owners.
All that remains to be seen if whether they can sustain their successful run of form and secure a place in the finals.