Punjab FC’s pursuit for their maiden win in the Indian Super League (ISL) 2023-24 season continues as they head to the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata to face East Bengal FC on December 9, Saturday. The Red & Gold Brigade perhaps encountered their moment of reckoning in their previous encounter against NorthEast United FC, putting five past the Highlanders to record their biggest-ever win in the competition history.

From visible improvement in the performances of domestic players to a style of football that has excited the East Bengal FC faithful, Carles Cuadrat has had a positive influence on the team. Their inspired run to the Durand Cup final prior to the campaign suggested that things were moving in the right direction for the team. They started the ISL season brightly too, however, a brief phase struck where they were unable to break free from the shackles to cross over the finishing line.

However, a rejuvenated unit took to the field after the international break, with the entire team delivering a spotless performance in their aforementioned triumph over the Juan Pedro Benali-coached side. In addition to the win, the team managed to get the support of the spectators behind their back. Being one of the traditional hotbeds of the sport in India, Kolkata has the potential to create a potentially intimidating environment for the visiting team, provided their team matches the high standards that the fans associate with them.

However, Punjab FC has shown that they aren’t bothered by such factors, taking the attack to Bengaluru FC at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in their last game and scoring thrice in the first half itself. The ISL debutants produced one breath-taking goal after another, reflecting the sheer individual brilliance brimming through that squad. However, they need to manage their games and defend their leads better, which is the single most important element that could determine the outcome of tomorrow’s game.

What’s at stake?

East Bengal FC

The home team has the opportunity to make the last game the turning point of their season. Despite positive results before, they had never secured a victory of this nature, where they rolled over the opponents and left no stone unturned, much to the delight of the fans on the stands. Cuadrat must look to build upon that, consolidate their position in the points table with three points against Punjab FC, whose defensive woes have been visible multiple times this season.

The fact that East Bengal FC are off to their best ever start in the ISL needs no telling, with this being the first time that they have a positive goal difference (+3) seven games into the season. Their tally of eight points after these games is also the most that they have garnered at this stage of any of their campaigns in the competition.

There is a visible technical improvement in their gameplay, having completed 26.5% of their crosses from open play this season, which is the highest amongst all teams. It has allowed their wingers to thrive, with the likes of Nandhakumar Sekar and Naorem Mahesh Singh starring with impactful individual performances. After their showing in the last game, Cuadrat should back his boys to get three points from this encounter, making the most of the situation that Punjab FC find themselves in.

Watch the highlights from the last match of EBFC here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDvwFR59f0I&t=1s

Punjab FC

Punjab FC are still adapting to life in the top-tier, but an inspired performance in Bengaluru must give them significant confidence to adopt a similarly proactive approach in the backyard of East Bengal FC. What worked for Vergetis’ men in that match was they were fearless, and that showed with the belief with which they moved the ball higher up on the field and explored spaces in and around the Bengaluru FC backline.

The forwards were given the freedom to take shots from distance if they liked, and all things fell in place for them to have a first half as perfect as they could have imagined.

The fact that they could not hold the defensive unit together in the final 45 minutes is a different story, and though learning must be taken from it, Vergetis should look to reinforce the team with self-belief with the way they pushed Bengaluru FC back in the first half of that game. No team has taken more than eight games to register their first win in the ISL. In fact, East Bengal FC did so in eight games too in the 2020-21 campaign. Some strengthening at the back coupled with dynamism upfront, along with a neat finish to the game could pave the way for Punjab FC to get the inaugural victory of ISL 2023-24.

Catch the highlights from Punjab FC’s last encounter here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgsbeWH233c  

Key Players

Nandhakumar Sekar (East Bengal FC)

Nandhakumar Sekar scored twice and assisted once coming off the bench to deliver an impactful Super Sub worthy performance in the 5-0 win over NorthEast United FC. The 27-year-old has set up three goals in addition to that brace in seven appearances this season, with his coordination with Mahesh on the field bringing great laurels to the Red & Gold Brigade.

The two of them often interlink in the final third, switch positions, get into goal-scoring positions, carve open the opposition’s backline with precise passes, crosses, and thus bolstering their frontline that already has the presence of the seasoned Cleiton Silva.

Nandhakumar can have more time to influence the proceedings if Cuadrat opts to start him in this game. The attacker has undertaken a concentrated role in this campaign, focusing more on staying near the opposition’s backline as much as possible, sniffing chances and putting them to bed with the help of his equally efficient teammates. Punjab FC have conceded the second-most (16) goals in the season, and they could present some opportunities for Nandhakumar to optimise in the upcoming game.

Juan Mera (Punjab FC)

The Spaniard has been the creative outlet from the middle for Punjab FC, juggling between his defensive and offensive duties perfectly. He averages 4.6 dribbles per game, which is the second highest aggregate amongst all players in ISL 2023-24. He has also completed 1.9 dribbles on an average in every match, with his footwork and close control potentially emerging as a cause of concern for the East Bengal FC defensive line.

With one goal and two assists across eight matches, Mera has made his presence felt in the scoreline. He averages 27 passes per game at an accuracy of 82% and has earned 2.25 fouls in every encounter too, helping his team capitalise upon set-pieces.

He sets the tempo of the game for Punjab FC, bringing out his wide range of passes, right from through-balls to cross field deliveries and crosses into the box from wider positions. He has created a goal-scoring chance in nearly every match, and Mera will have to dictate the flow of play for Punjab FC to get a positive outcome out of this game.

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Head-to-Head

This will be the first match between these two teams in the ISL.

Trivia: Punjab FC’s Khaiminthang Lhungdim has won the third-most tackles by any player (16) in this ISL season.

Team Talk

“We understand that it was just a victory at home (against NEUFC). When you come from four winless games, one game is not going to put you in the sky. We are conscious that we have to keep doing our work,” East Bengal FC head coach Carles Cuadrat admitted in the pre-match press conference.

“My team did a lot of better things in the last game as compared to the previous games and I was very happy with that. But, some of our mistakes caused us to lose the two points. But these mistakes make us more mature and better for the upcoming games,” Punjab FC head coach Staikos Vergetis remarked ahead of the match.

ISL Fantasy

Cleiton Silva (7.9cr)

Has scored five goals in seven matches in ISL 2023-24

Nandhakumar Sekar (7.1cr)

Five goal contributions in seven appearances this season

Juan Mera (8.1cr)

One goal and two assists in eight games in this campaign

If not registered already, fans can participate in the overall league or club-based leagues based on their preferences. Create private leagues, inviting friends and fellow football aficionados to compete. Prizes include a Sony PlayStation®️5 gaming console, EA Sports FC 24, signed club merchandise, and a Gift Card worth INR 20,000, which will be awarded to 100 winners at the end of the season. Sign up at: https://fantasy.indiansuperleague.com/

Where to Watch

Fans across the country can catch the action in English, Hindi, Bengali, and Malayalam. Fans can watch the action on linear channels like Sports18 Khel (Hindi), Sports18 1 SD & HD (English), Sports18 3 SD (English, Hindi, Malayalam and Bengali), VH1 SD & HD (English), Surya Movies (Malayalam) & DD Bangla (Bengali). In addition to this, as part of FSDL’s partnership with OneFootball, ISL live streams and highlights of all matches of the upcoming 2023-24 season will be delivered across more than 190 countries.