Sunday, Mar 25, 2018 | Last Update : 04:38 AM IST
The club has managed to break its jinx and enter the semis of the ISL for the first time due to its Serbian coach.
Going into the fourth season of the Hero Indian Super League, FC Pune City had the dubious distinction of being one of two teams (the other being NorthEast United) to have never qualified for the semi-finals. Pune City is one of the first clubs in the ISL, which invested early in the academy, marketing and established connect with fans. However, despite being strong on paper, they never got the results they deserved.
Almost four months into the current season, the team has managed to overcome the jinx to make their maiden debut in the play-offs. Much of that credit goes to their Serbian coach Ranko Popovic.
Indeed Pune City were smart to recruit some proven names from ISL 3 — Golden Boot winner Marcelinho and Marcos Tebar, two key performers behind Delhi Dynamos’ semi-final run in 2016, and Emiliano Alfaro (NorthEast United FC), found their way to Pune. But it is Popovic who has made the biggest impact, despite not being involved in the any of the recruitments before the season.
The Stallions had planned for the season with Antonio Habas, who was continuing from last year, in mind. Habas was involved in the player recruitment, right from identifying foreign players to formulating the strategy for the domestic player draft in July 2017.
Any coach would want to have a say in the squad composition before going into a season, a luxury which was not afforded to Popovic, who joined the club after they abruptly parted ways with Habas.
Many would arguably write off a club which runs into trouble with a coach even before season kick off. Even the start was not to anyone’s liking. They went down 0-3 in their opening clash against Delhi Dynamos before pulling two goals back. In the next game, however, Popovic orchestrated a response by upsetting defending champions ATK 4-1 away.
Popovic’s tactical moves and selection of personnel has come to the fore many a time during the season. Against Bengaluru FC, for example, Popovic managed to stifle the rampaging Blues at home, something teams found tough this season, until Baljit Sahni’s red card turned the tide around.
His decision to field Adil Khan as a midfielder also paid off with the former Mohun Bagan defender putting in excellent displays in the centre of the park alongside Tebar, which lent the side some stability and steel. It allowed the talented frontline of Alfaro, Marcelinho and Diego Carlos some freedom.
In fact, Popovic used versatile players extensively during the season with Baljit Sahni, Rohit Kumar, Adil Khan and Sarthak Golui popping up in different positions according to the needs of the team in different matches.
"We want to make most players possible for Indian national team and make the league stronger,” said Popovic.
Another key factor to Pune’s success has been Popovic’s faith in young players. While many coaches tend to be circumspect when it comes to handing out chances to youngsters, Popovic has been the exact opposite. And his trust in them has paid dividends.
“What I taught the guys from the beginning is to work hard and achieve. I will not be satisfied if we do not try to go extra,” he said. The Serbian has made the most of the players handed to him and made further improvements in the winter transfer window by bringing in Marko Stankovic and Lolo. With just two point from their last three matches, Pune City will be eager to make amends in the semi-finals against Bengaluru FC.