14:30 GMT, Wednesday 7th March, Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex Stadium (Pune, India), Sab TV UK
FC Pune City hosts Bengaluru for the first leg of the semi-final in the ISL playoffs between the first-ranked team and the fourth-ranked side.
Ranko Popovic’s team didn’t have the best lead up to the playoffs as they could manage only two points from their last three league games. Incidentally, one of those two points came from a draw at Bengaluru.
Despite being one of the better-balanced teams in the league, Pune has failed to beat Bengaluru this season and the Blues will surely take heart from that fact.
It shouldn't be forgotten that Albert Roca’s men have gotten more consistent as the season progressed and are now on an eight-match unbeaten run in the league, having last lost a match on 14th January to Delhi.
Last Time Out
Delhi Dynamos FC 2-2 FC Pune City (Indian Super League)
The match seemed more like both sides versus the referee than Delhi vs Pune. Of the four goals scored in the match, three came from penalties and all of them looked controversial. The Dynamos even had a goal ruled out due to a suspected handball from Kalu Uche despite replays being unable to confirm it.
This wasn’t one of the best performances from the Pune side as they failed to control the ball and lacked the fluid game that brought them dominance during mid-season. Due to a poor pass completion rate of only 66%, their overall control of the ball suffered, giving more opportunities to Delhi.
In addition, one of their midfield maestros, Marcos Tebar, seemed off his game and was substituted early on for Jonatan Lucca.
The first goal came in the 10th minute after Lallianzuala Chhangte went to the ground inside the box. Kalu Uche calmly converted from the spot but Delhi soon had a taste of their own medicine, when three minutes later Emiliano Alfaro equalised from a penalty kick.
In the 34th minute, Nandhakumar Sekar capitalised on Rafa Lopez’s slip to square the loose ball to Kalu Uche who tapped it in for his 13th of the competition.
The visitors rallied for an equaliser in the second half but could only manage another penalty in the 86th minute. Thankfully, Alfaro converted this one as well, allowing them to go home with at least a point.
Bengaluru FC 2-0 Kerala Blasters (Indian Super League)
This was a match that saw Bengaluru completely dominate Kerala Blasters. The visitors failed to keep up with the Blues high pressing game, ceding possession yards away from their own penalty box, leading the Miku and Co. to register a total of 11 shots.
By contrast, Kerala had only two shots and none of them was on goal. The Blues started a strong side but brought in Udanta Singh, Daniel Segovia and Alwyn George in the second half.
Oddly enough, the home team showed no signs of slowing down after their key playmaker Edu Garcia left for the Chinese Super League side last month. Toni Dovale has eased into the role and organised the attacks ably, allowing their fullbacks to complement the attacking lineup.
However, the Blasters managed to keep out Bengaluru for almost a whole 90 minutes but ultimately gave in to a brilliant finish from Miku at the 90-minute mark, followed by low pile driver from Udanta Singh just minutes later.
FC Pune City Lineup
Marcelinho should make his way back into the team sheet for the semi-final, which would see Marko Stankovic drop to the double pivot beside Adil Khan, given Marcos Tebar’s poor performance in the last match.
If Popovic persists with Tebar, then Stankovic would drop to the bench. Diego Carlos too should see himself given a chance on the left after missing out the last match.
Bengaluru FC Lineup
The Blues gave their first choice centre backs a miss for the inconsequential match against Kerala but should see them return against Pune, in which case Erik Paartalu might be dropped to the bench to comply with the five-foreigner rule.
Key Battle: Emiliano Alfaro (FC Pune City) vs Miku (Bengaluru FC)
A battle of the South American marksmen will ensue when these two teams take the pitch.
Emiliano Alfaro has already bettered his previous ISL record by four goals and will only look to add more. The Uruguayan has linked up well with Diego Carlos and Marcelinho to provide a rapid attacking outlet for the team.
Alfaro has never played in the ISL playoffs before and as a result, it will be interesting to see how we cope with the added pressure of performing in the semifinal.
His counterpart on Wednesday night will be the Venezuelan striker Miku.
Much like Ferran Corominas, he took a bit of time to settle into the ISL, but ever since then, has been hard to stop. The Bengaluru number 7 has amassed 14 goals in 17 appearances and can play on the flanks as well as through the middle.
The rapport that Miku, Sunil Chhetri and Udanta Singh share, make them a dangerous triumvirate for opposition teams.
Pune lacking confidence in midfield
Pune’s last match saw them falter against a pressure-less Delhi Dynamos.
One of the reasons for their apparent failure was their inability to keep the ball in the midfield. Marcos Tebar has been a pillar for the Stallions in the midfield, ably screening the defence as well as playing as a deep-playmaker for Marcelinho and Co.
But on their last outing, he lost the ball too many times and failed to recover it in time. As a result, every time Pune wanted to open up Delhi’s defence, they had to bypass the midfield and play long.
Unfortunately, Bengaluru aren't as weak as Delhi in defence, plus they have more physically adept centre-backs than Delhi. Playing long might not bring the desired result, especially, if they are being overrun in midfield.
Prediction: FC Pune City 1-2 Bengaluru FC
Pune do not seem like the team that can beat an in-form Bengaluru. The Blues have already beaten them once and drawn on the other occasion, which should be sufficient experience for Roca’s men to win this leg.