Punjab FC orchestrated a remarkable comeback against Kerala Blasters FC on Monday, rebounding from an early deficit to secure their first away victory in the Indian Super League (ISL). The Shers exhibited unwavering resilience and determination, echoing their previous performance against Bengaluru FC, where they rallied from a one-goal deficit to score three goals.

This triumph against the Blasters was also their first consecutive victory in the ISL. Beyond the mere scoreline, the manner in which they secured these wins underscores their adeptness at overcoming the challenges that they initially faced after joining the ISL this season.

Navigating the Early Hurdles

The newly promoted side to the ISL initially struggled to cope with the pace of the league. Many players lacked prior experience in India's top-flight league, and that was evident in their performance in the previous matches of the first leg. In matches against Mumbai City FC, Bengaluru FC, and Hyderabad FC, they gave away their early lead, squandering three points and having to settle for just one point.

“One difference between the two divisions (ISL and I-League) is that, mostly, I think that the game here is faster; it has more transitions from defence to attack and the opposite,” Vergetis said earlier in the season.

“For us, there are difficulties. We try to be competitive, apart from one game (against Chennaiyin FC), all the other games we have lost by a goal. Until now we have not succeeded in winning any game. This has hurt us but made us insist more on our work. The success will come,” the Greek tactician promised earlier.

Despite these challenges, their head coach, Staikos Vergetis, and the entire squad diligently utilised the Super Cup and the international break, working tirelessly. The Shers have brought in experienced Indian players in the winter transfer window, and the return of forward Wilmar Jordan Gil from injury has also significantly contributed to their improvement. Even players with limited experience are showing a gradual transformation and the ability to match the levels of other ISL teams. Finally, the fruit of their labour is now shining through in their recent performances.

“I think our players step on the field with more confidence. They have now played a certain number of games in the ISL which they had never played before. That has given them experience which is very useful,” Vergetis stated after their recent win against Kerala Blasters FC.

Numbers speak volumes for Punjab FC

The recent victories have ignited a spark of hope and excitement among fans. Prior to the international break, they managed only one victory and five draws in the first 12 matches of the season. However, their resurgence after the break with two impressive comeback victories against Bengaluru FC and Kerala Blasters FC has earned them six crucial points in the last two matches, surpassing the eight points accumulated in the opening 12 matches. The playoffs are now well within the reach of Vergetis’ side, which struggled at the 11th position before the break, but has climbed to the 9th position, standing just two points behind the sixth-placed NorthEast United FC.

The team has demonstrated significant progress on both offensive and defensive fronts. In the initial half of the season, they averaged 15.3 touches in the opposition box, a figure that has now increased to an impressive 20 touches in the last two matches. Additionally, they recorded 14 shots on target in the recent two victories, surpassing the total of 30 shots in the opening 12 matches. Defensively, the team has shown greater solidity by allowing an Expected Goals Against (xGA) of 0.5 in the last two matches, compared to the 1.5 xGA in the first half of the season.

The Trifecta's Role in Punjab FC’s resurgence

Captain Luka Majcen was the only bright spark in the opening half of the season for Punjab FC in the upfront position, and the Slovenian lacked support in the final third. Head coach Staikos Vergetis has transformed the lineup, and after Wilmar Jordan returned to full fitness, it has given him the choice to opt for a double foreign striker. The trio has scored six goals in the last two matches among themselves.

The Greek tactician has also given French playmaker Madih Talal a free role to move behind the two strikers, and this transformation is bearing fruit for the side. Over the last two matches, Talal has netted one goal and provided two assists, taking his assist tally to four, only behind Rafael Crivellaro (5). He has now created 28 chances in the league this season, the highest by any player.

“I changed the formation as I wanted the team to be more dangerous in attack,” Vergetis said after their triumph over the Blasters.

“I gave Madih Talal the liberty to move behind the strikers. This gave us the opportunity to be more dangerous,” he added.

Gil made his first ISL start this season against Bengaluru FC, where he scored the equalizing goal after Sunil Chhetri put the Blues ahead. The Colombian forward then went on to bag a brace against Kerala Blasters FC, marking his third brace in the ISL.

“Wilmar Jordan Gil suffered a lot. It's difficult to stay out of training and the games. What makes me happy is that he insisted on working. Everyone supported him. Now that he is in good condition, he has shown his capacity,” the Greek coach commented on Gil's performance.

Majcen has not been far behind, scoring one goal each against Bengaluru FC and Kerala Blasters FC. The trio would now look to shine brighter in the upcoming matches.

It took time for Punjab FC to feel at home in the ISL, but it's fair to say that the Shers have finally found their den in the big league.