FC Pune City will miss coach Antonio Habas and his animated presence on the sidelines during the 2017 Indian Super League. The franchise had parted ways with the Spaniard whose decision to leave into his second season with the club after planning the team building is perplexing. FC Pune City then appointed Ranko Popovic before the commencement of the pre-season, allowing time for the players to get adjusted to the experienced Serbian coach.
Brazilian striker Marcelo Leite Pereira (Marcelinho), Spanish midfielder Marcos Tebar and Indian forward Kean Lewis moved to Pune City from Delhi Dynamos when Habas was in charge. But changing the chief coach midstream put Pune City FC in the spotlight. Popovic will be the fourth coach to helm the Pune outfit in four seasons, after Franco Colomba (2014), David Platt (2015) and Habas (2016).
The Serbian, featuring in the ISL for the first time, will be working with incredibly talented foreign players and highly motivated Indian professionals. Marcelinho (10 goals), the Golden Boot winner last season, and the young Indian Kean Lewis were unstoppable for Delhi Dynamos in 2016. They teamed up well with Florent Malouda, who lived up to his reputation as an attacking midfielder of the highest class.
Popovic’s experience as coach should help him bring out the best in his Spanish midfielder Tebar, who is playing in his second ISL season. A Real Madrid Academy product, Tebar had played for Spain in age-group competitions, including the Under-17 World Cup in 2003. Popovic also gets to work with Marcelinho, a fleet-footed Brazilian back in the ISL this year as a free agent after a stint with Avai FC back home.
Pune City will have high expectations from Emiliano Alfaro, another signing facilitated by Habas from among the top ISL performers last season. With five goals, seven assists and 18 shots at goal in 13 matches for NorthEast United FC, the Uruguayan is known for shooting from long-range. He had played in Italy (Lazio) and the United Arab Emirates (Al Wasl) before the ISL.
Popovic has had ample opportunities to look at Indian talent from close — during the pre-season in Pune and later in the practice games against East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. It won’t be surprising if Indians fill up more than six first-team places. Players such as Muhammed Ashique Kuruniyan, Kean Lewis, Baljit Sahni (forwards), Rohit Kumar, Jewel Shaikh, Issac Vanmalsawma (midfielders), Lalchhuanmawia Fanai (defenders), Kamaljit singh and Vishal Kaith (goalkeepers) have quality, and the Serbian has the tough task of deciding whom to choose and whom to leave out.
Arjun Kapoor (Bollywood Actor):
“I grew up watching and playing football. I still actively play with my friends, who also are co-owners at various ISL clubs. What FC Pune City as a club is doing with football is tremendous. I thought of joining them in their endeavour to develop a professional eco-system of football across Maharashtra. We will work collectively to create a special and inspirational team.”