Many pundits considered Pune FC as the dark horses for this season’s I-League after their impressive performances last season. Pune FC surprised many with 3 away wins at the Fatorda stadium Goa; should we change our protrusion and rank them among the title challengers? Not many teams can defeat Sporting, Salgaocar and Dempo at their own fort. There will not be many matches when the defending champions are blown away in I-League. The Red Lizards produced one of those fine displays that the subcontinent paused to take a closer look.

Pune FC has been a consistently labelled as dark horses in last two years I-League challenge thanks to their wonderful home form. Results has come at their own back yard even at the expense of powerhouses, but no one took their challenge that seriously to consider them in the top bracket. Over the past years Pune FC were a consistent team at their own backyard, while earning occasional good results away from home. Those performances weren’t consistent enough or it never looked like a championship material. Dark horses might upset one or two big boys on their day, but they won’t be able to do that on a consistent basis.

This season Pune FC are showing the signs of title challengers. They are performing admirably well home and away, indication of a step up in their attitude and performance.

Pune FC

New Force in Indian Football

Wins against ONGC and Mumbai FC gave them a head start to the season, but the losses against East Bengal and Churchill Brothers put them in their earlier bracket. After those two reversals Pune FC remain unbeaten while conquering Kolkata and Goa on their travels to stake claims for a bigger ‘tag’. If their performances over the past 3 seasons earned them the tag of ‘dark horses’, this seasons performances are worth the tag of ‘Title Challengers’. Forget about toying with the Goans, not every team will be able to take the game to the Goans at their own backyard and the new title challengers have just done that to deserve a place in the country’s elite group. Pune FC have turned around the season wonderfully after disappointing in Durand and Federation Cups. They have proved time and again that they are stronger “league team” than a “Cup team” and have stayed true to the tage this season.

Douhou Pierre ran the show for Pune FC in Goa as the defending champions Dempo SC were chasing shadows in the second half after an injury to Mahesh Gawli. James Moga stuck twice while Jeje Lalpekhula and Arata Izumi registered their names on the scoresheet and as a fitting tribute to his wonderful performance Douhou Pierre rounded up a five star performance in style. Pune FC coach Derrick Pereira wasn’t surprised by the result, but the score line surprised the whole of India. I-League champions Dempo SC had to bite the dust against Pune FC in Goa and the 1-5 scoreline was as emphatic as the magnificent performance from the Red Lizards.

Teams were locked in 1-1 at half time as James Moga’s opener was cancelled out by a brilliant piece of free kick from Joaquim Abaranches. The second half was completely different, as once Mahesh Gawli went out injured Dempo SC was nowhere in the scene. The defending champions were completely outplayed at their own den by the impressive Red Lizards as they notched up 5 goals to inflict the biggest defeat in a decade’s time for Dempo SC. Pune FC are maturing with each passing game and their recent performances are worthy of any title Challengers. Right now East Bengal, Churchill Brothers and Dempo are the main contenders for the title. The first two teams have been playing wonderfully this season but Dempo has looked jaded and have looked nowhere near their usual form. Mohun Bagan and Salgaocar are submerged in troubles of their own and this means Pune FC have a perfect chance to launch their first serious title challenge since gaining promotion in I-League.

Other Matches

Former I-League champions Salgaocar have been very poor this season and they find themselves in the relegation battle. The battle for last spot with ONGC saw an unimpressive performance from the Goans as the match ended in a goalless draw. A true reflection of their positions in I-League, 13th and 14th respectively. ONGC were thrashed in almost all their travels this season but former champions Salgaocar lacked the cutting edge as they couldn’t convert a lions share of possession to goals. Salgaocar were wasteful infront of goal as ONGC custodian TP Rehenesh came out with a deserved clean sheet and as a result both teams settled for a point in the first fixture of I-League Round 11.

United Sikkim traveled to Mumbai to face Khalid Jamil’s team. United Sikkim tried harder under their new coach Nathan Hall to derail Mumbai FC hopes while the the attacking duo of ND Okpara and Yusif Yakubu asked questions of the Sikkim defence. United Sikkum midfield lynchpin Michael Rodriguez tried to dictate the tempo of the game and to an extent he was successful in the proceedings. But an injury time header from Okpara was enough to secure vital 3 points for the Mumbai based side. United Sikkim’s attacks lacks the venom and punch as the score remained the same till the final whistle.

East Bengal’s unbeaten run was ended by Prayag United thanks to a well taken goal from Ranty Martins. I-League top scorer Ranti Martins added one more goal to his overall tally in Kolkata and this goal proved out to be the winner against the Red and Golds. This result takes Prayag back to their ambitious title challenge after 3 successive defeats in previous rounds.East Bengal seems to have been affected from their violence marred outing against Mohun Bagan as they never got the going against the lesser established cross town rivals. This loss comes after Aryan SC inflicted their first loss of the season in a mid-week Kolkata League fixture. The meanest defence in I-League conceded their second goal in this campaign and East Bengal failed to utilize the slip up from Dempo SC at this crucial juncture.

I-League Team of the weekChurchill Brothers and Sporting Club De Goa were involved in a goal fest which produced 12 goals. Churchill ran victorious with the score line reading 8-4 in their favour and regained the joint top spot in I-League. Striker Bineesh Balan was in red hot form notching up a hattrick and was well supported by his team-mates Henry(2), Silva(2) and Akram in completing their rout. Bineesh Balan took the lead for Churchill but soon they found themselves behind by a goal as sporting raced to a lead inside first half. Churchill shifted gears then and went on a rampaging run after which the score line read as 8-2 with injury time remaining. Even though the final scoreline was 8-4, Churchill will be proud of their attack which helped them to the top spot. Their defence was exploited by the likes of Joseph Perriera and co and they need to address the gaps as quickly as possible to maintain a decent title challenge.

Air India and Shillong Lajong settled for a point apiece in an encounter between two low budget teams in India’s top flight. Micky Fernandez has been crucial for Air India this season and he was a big influence in this match as he tried to make the difference in an otherwise dull encounter. If Mickey fernandez posed the biggest threat for Shillong Lajong, their threat mainly came from the set plays of former India International Renedy Singh. Air India took the lead through Souvik Chakraborthy and looked set for a winner until substitute Boithang Haokip’s fine goal shared parity in the dying minutes.

Team of the week (3-4-3):  Subrata Pal; Robin Gurung, Bello Rasaq, Sandesh Jhingham; Nicholas Rodriguez, Dohou Pierre, Roberto Silva, Joseph Perriera; Bineesh Balan, James Moga, Ranti Martins