Can Puneri Paltan book a berth in the semi-finals tomorrow when they take on traditional rivals U Mumba at the NSCI Dome in Mumbai tomorrow? This will be the foremost question in the minds of their supporters who may travel from Pune to the metropolis to cheer their team despite this being the only fixture slated for the day. For long Pune and Mumbai the Marathi super powers have had a healthy rivalry which has now spilled over to the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi.
But a closer look at the nascent history of this event that has revolutionised the sport shows U Mumba have always trumped their neighbours. Their last encounter when the defending champions were without four key players to the opponents two the former came up with an astonishing 29-27 win in the dying minutes. It was fashioned by the wily Rakesh Kumar in the absence of the cool as ever Anup Kumar.
For once the tough as nails Manjeet Chhillar was left rubbing his palms. The show stealers on that day were the young Rishank Devadiga and the Iranian defender Fazel Atrachali. Both have held their place in the team since keeping out Shabeer Bapu Sharfudeen and Surender Nada who were so impressive in the seasons gone by. Puneri Paltan then found a new player in Surendra Singh who has given them a few options in raiding.
That’s history now as Puneri Paltan wiil be trying to gain a maiden entry in the semi-finals. Having never beaten their opponents they will be facing one who may have made it to the last four with a win over a depleted Jaipur Pink Panthers on Sunday. But having made it doesn’t mean they will be lax in their approach. They have the ball rolling in their favour and wouldn’t like to relax if one is to believe the philosophy of their coach E Bhaskaran.
Anup Kumar and his boys would like to get a firm grip on the match early against an under pressure opponent. Two giants in Anup Kumar and Rakesh Kumar and a water tight defence with Mohit Chhillar, Vishal Mane, Jeeva Kumar and is a formidable line-up to deal with for Puneri Paltan especially when their top raider Ajay Thakur has been in an up-down form mode. Surendra Singh’s mettle as a big-time player will be tested and so will be the case of Tushar Patil a greenhorn.
Despite the strong arm tactics of Manjeet Chhillar, the Pune defence lacks the solidity and consistency to deal with top class raiders. Jasmer Singh Gulia has been brilliant in flashes but rivals like U Mumbai and Patna Pirates are in a class of their own. So the key man for Puneri Paltan other than Manjeet Chhillar has to be Surjeet Narwal (Services) in midfield. He has to ensure the fall of Anup Kumar and Rishank Devadiga to keep them off the court for long periods. It will be the other way round with U Mumbai training their guns on Manjeet Chhillar, Surendra Singh and Ajay Thakur.
Puneri Paltan have to come up with a stupendous team effort to down U Mumba, a team that has the class and resources to deal with any opponent in any situation. They need to come in with more than one plan to counter their opponents. Their think-tank of coach Ashok Shinde and Manjeet Chhillar will burn midnight oil to prepare for this crucial encounter which may just turn out to be a dress rehearsal for one of the semi-finals. A consolation point also would be valuable for Puneri Paltan to take their tally to 43 which can only be equalled by Telugu Titans if they beat leaders Patna Pirates on Sunday and defeat the hosts on Tuesday.