Pune: It will be a battle of two play-off debutants when round-robin group toppers and favourites Bengaluru FC take on FC Pune City in the first leg semi-final of the Indian Super League at the Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex in Balewadi here on Wednesday.
BFC, who made their debut in the ISL this season after making a big mark in the I-League till last season, have been the most impressive among the 10 teams and go into the first leg semi-final clash with their tails up against a team that have made it to the play-off for the first time in four attempts.
With both sides possessing some top class strikers and effective mid-fielders, apart from two Indian goalies Vishal Kaith and Gurpreet Singh who have been quietly efficient, the game promises to provide exciting fare.
In India skipper Sunil Chhetri and Venezuelan Miku, who are second and fifth in the goal-getters' list with 14 and 10 strikes respectively, the BFC have a potent strike force that would be hard to contain.
The BFC go into the match with a slight advantage of having beaten Pune City comprehensively once, but the hosts can take comfort from the fact that when the two met in the return leg in the league phase the match ended in a stalemate.
Miku's brace and Chhetri's stoppage time strike helped Bengaluru come back from a goal behind to register a thrilling 3-1 win when the two teams met at this venue earlier. The visitors, whose five-game winning streak was halted earlier by Pune with a draw, will be going into the game after logging a record-setting 40 points while maintaining an eight-match unbeaten streak.
BFC's Spanish coach Albert Roca was a relieved man after his team scored its 13th win of the season with a 2-0 verdict over Kerala Blasters in a game in which the team's two main defenders John Johnson and Juanan were out due to suspensions.
The ISL debutants have qualified for the semi-finals as the league toppers, but Roca was wary of getting complacent. "This is the most difficult part of the season. We have finished on top with a lot of points, but the pressure is on us. Now, it's time to be humble and work harder with the right mentality," he said.
"These wins help us with the confidence, but we do not have a lot of days to prepare right now. So, we must have the right mentality," Roca had said after the last game win.
The 55-year-old singled out Chhetri for praise for the Indian captain's consistent performance right through. "I am very happy with Sunil," Roca had stated.
"He is a player who has played more than 2,000 minutes in the season so far. He is a special player and he's always giving his best for the team," he said.
"He's a very competitive player who plays regularly for the national team. I am happy for him and his outstanding season," Roca had remarked.
If the BFC has a potent frontline, Pune has in Marcelinho a top-class forward who has forged a fine understanding with fellow-South Americans - Emiliano Alfaro of Uruguay and Brazilian compatriot Diego Carlos, who all have served out suspensions from games.
These three would pose a constant danger to the BFC citadel with promptings from the likes of Adil Khan and Marcos Tebar in the midfield. Having picked up just two points from their last three matches, the hosts - coached by Serbian Ranko Popovic – will be eager to make amends in the semi-finals after having finished fourth in the round robin stage with 30 points from nine wins and three draws.
A key factor to Pune's success has been Popovic's faith in young Indian players like Kaith, Sartak Golui, Isaac Vanmalsawma, Ashique Kuruniyan, Rohit Kumar and Sahil Panwar, who have all played key roles during the season. "We want to make most players possible for Indian national team and make the league stronger," said Popovic in the run-up to tomorrow's tough game against BFC.
The Serbian coach has made the most of the players handed out to him after last year's head coach Antonio Habas quit post the players' draft. Tomorrow's game will show whether Popovic was able to guide his team into the second leg in Bengaluru on March 11 with the added advantage of a victory in the first leg....