14:30 GMT, Friday 2nd February, Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex Stadium (Pune, India), Sab TV UK
In their last outing, the Stallions picked up a win against Jamshedpur and now wait for the arrival of Kerala Blasters who returned to winning way against Delhi Dynamos after two losses in a row.
Ranko Popovic’s team sits neatly perched in the number three spot, taking seven wins from 12 outings and only suffering four losses.
They’ll attempt to go top of the standings with a win against the Blasters and further cement their playoff spot.
Kerala Blasters coach, David James does not enjoy the same luxuries as their opponent on Friday. After losing the team’s joint top-scorer, Mark Sifneos to FC Goa, they are yet to sign a direct replacement.
Going by the rumours, the Blasters have regressed tactically after Meulensteen’s departure.
Last Time Out
FC Pune City 2-1 Jamshedpur FC (Indian Super League)
This was an exciting battle between one of the most versatile attacking teams in the league, against a team known to close down opponents with ease.
The start of the match followed the story of the game as Wellington Priori paced past the defenders and beat the keeper, sending a dinked effort into the back of the net.
Pune reacted well by keeping possession and putting up an impressive number of shots on the goal. However, despite putting up 11 shots on the goal, against Jamshedpur's two, the Stallions were kept to wait until the 62nd minute when Gurtej Singh took advantage of a free-header to send Marcelinho's corner kick into the safety of the net.
Pune have been a consistent threat from set pieces and they have proved once again why teams should be wary of conceding freekicks and corners to them.
Four minutes later, new signing Marko Stankovic started a move that saw Marcelinho beat his marker his a stepover to square a pass into the box. Emiliano Alfaro did not miss the chance, hitting it first time to send it crashing into the net.
While Jamshedpur did try to muster a reaction, they failed to move past Pune's defensive line as the home side retained the lead till the final whistle.
Kerala Blasters 2-1 Delhi Dynamos (Indian Super League)
This was an important match for the Blaster after going through two consecutive defeats. Despite the initial upsurge in performance after James's appointment, the following matches highlighted there were deeper problems, though the team spirit and overall performance seemed on the rise.
The coach made a host of changes against the Dynamos and a loss would have attracted the majority of the blame for the starting lineup decisions.
Pune took the lead through Kalu Uche who scored a spot-kick after Prasanth K brought down a Dynamo forward in the penalty area.
It wasn't until the second half after the coach made three changes replacing Karan Sawhney with youngster Deependra Negi that the Blasters drew level.
The former CF Reus midfielder put in an acrobatic effort to grab the equaliser for his team, bagging the rights to be called the youngest player to score in the ISL.
Subsequent substitutions showed an uptick in the Blasters performance but the Dynamos continued to dominate the tempo.
Unfortunately, they could not create an end-product: Pratik Chowdhary's rash challenge on Deependra Negi saw them concede a penalty. Iain Hume rose to the occasion, sending Arnab Das Sharma the wrong way to steal the home side's second and winning goal.
FC Pune City Lineup
Pune opted for an unconventional starting lineup, which saw holding midfield Adil Khan deployed in the right-back position, Jonatan Lucca, the attacking midfielder, dropping to the holding midfielder position and Isaac Vanmalsawma take the place of sidelined Ashique Kuruniyan.
The Stallions only managed the squeeze the match out of Jamshedpur’s clutches after Popovic brought in new recruit Marko Stankovic in the central midfield freeing up Lucca to take his natural position and replacing Isaac with fullback Sarthak Golui.
Ideally, Marcos Tebar/Marko Stankovic should be able to pair well with Adil Khan or Rohit Kumar in the double pivot, so that others can play their natural game.
Ashique Kuruniyan is out with an injury with no return date specified while Keziron Kizito remains out for the season.
Kerala Blasters Lineup
David James too opted to make some unconventional changes in their starting lineup, most probably an attempt to probe a reaction from the players who have featured less for the team.
Rino Anto is sidelined with an injury and there have been no updates regarding his return.
Key Battle: Marcelinho (FC Pune City) vs Sandesh Jhingan (Kerala Blasters)
With seven assists and six goals, Marcelinho has now had a hand in 13 goals in just ten matches.
The 2016 Golden Ball winner has been in fine form since his initial stumble in the current season. In the last match, the Brazilian created both the goals for his team helping Gurtej Singh and Emiliano Alfaro to get on the scoresheet.
His influence on the pitch is immense, given his ability to move past defenders to go for the goal as well as draw out defenders from their position to create opportunities for Alfaro and Co.
Since he normally plays on the left side of the field, Sandesh Jhingan will be the person going up against the Brazilian.
2015 was Jhingan's breakout season, leading to him receiving praise from the national team coach as well as his club coaches.
In this season as well, he has been a pillar in defence, except for the match where he conceded a penalty from handball.
His ability to anticipate attacks and put in timely tackles will be tested to the limit as Marcelinho will link up with Lucca and Alfaro to fire Pune to the top of the league.
Popovic tinkering might cost Pune a playoff position
While Pune have been one of the best team this season, Ranko Popovic’s constant tinkering with the starting lineup may come back to bite him.
Starting the last match with Adil Khan at the right back, despite having Sarthak Golui and Sahil Panwar as fullbacks, questions have been raised about the Serbian's approach.
In order to make up for Adil Khan’s absence in the midfield, Popovic brought Lucca (an attacking midfielder) in the holding position, overlooking new recruit Marko Stankovic and Marcos Tebar. While Tebar has been a standout in that position, Stankovic is also central midfielder by trade.
It was ultimately reinstating Lucca to his original position while bringing Stankovic on the field at half-time that prompted Pune to regain their control over the match.
Such changes are not forced and cannot be explained simply. If they continue they will start hampering the balance in the side, risking them to lose their position in the top four.
Saved by the Negi
David James’s team were well on the way to a third straight loss, had it not been for a young recruit Deependra Negi.
Negi had formerly been part of La Liga’s Segunda Division team, CF Reus and even represented their U-18 side in professional competitions.
After fielding their ‘not-so-best’ starting eleven, the Blasters saw themselves trailing Delhi by a goal.
It was only after Karan Sawhney’s half-time substitution that the Blasters started to find some foothold in front of the goal.
With Sifneos out of the club, the Blasters missed a second striker in the box and Sawhney has not been up to the job.
However, Negi’s beautiful mid-air flick and silky smooth skills inside the box got the Blasters their first goal and a penalty, which ultimately saw Hume propel the home side to the lead.
Prediction: FC Pune City 2-1 Kerala Blasters FC
At this point in time, Pune look most likely to win the battle, specifically since their front four is in terrific form.
Kerala have been scrappy off late and might not be able to go punch for punch with Popovic’s outfit.