Saturday's game, incidentally the first meeting between the state neighbours this season, is thus important for Pune FC purely to bridge the gap.
Currently in third place (40 points), Pune FC trail East Bengal by 3 points and leaders Churchill Brothers by 8 points and hope not to slip-up in the race for a best rank.
For the record, Pune FC, who will be playing their 23rd match, holds a one-match advantage over the Kolkata and Goan sides.
Rivals Air-India is certain to be no pushovers for Pune FC on the morrow. With relegation looming large, apart from their future existence in the I-League in doubt, the Mumbai side will be out to hold their heads high.
With the odds stacked against Air-India, Pune FC will be looking at capatalising on the situation.
Pune FC Coach, Derrick Pereira says, "We are looking at 3 points and consolidate our position and put pressure on the Top-2 teams... I am hoping for a miracle in the final run as well."
"In the situation we are in there is only one option and that is play to win and leave all other possibilities to take its own course," Pune FC coach adds.
Air-India, under new coach Naushad Moosa, of late has adapted to playing with a totally different style. Pune FC Coach observes, "Since the arrival of their new coach, Air-India has played with a marked difference... more fluid."
The Mumbai-side, however, remain winless in the 6 games played under the new coach. Making matters worse, Air-India's defence has leaked 17 goals and have managed to score just 5, which hands Pune FC reason to explore and make use in their quest.
Another worrying factor has been Air-India picking up 3 red cards in their last 3 games in which they've conceded 11 goals.
Pune FC Coach adds, "Yes we are playing them for the first time this season and will need to stick to our style of play. There is no way that we can underestimate them."
With only one clean sheet overall and having conceded 50 goals this season, Air-India stay above bottom-dwelling United Sikkim FC by 4 points.
In contrast is Air-India's attack with the lively Henry Ezeh, leading the front with 9 goals. He is supported by the wily Nigerian Elijah Obagmiro Junior (4) and local-boy Prakash Thorat (3).
A goal threat is also ever present from their midfielders, with regulars Micky Fernandes, Souvik Chakraborty, Pradeep Mohanraj and Vijith Shetty having netted twice each.
On the team front, goalkeeper Bubai Singh misses the game after being red-carded in their previous game. Bubai's place will thus be taken by experienced Sukhwinder Singh.
Air-India, who use Balewadi as their temporary 'home', have picked up only 11 points in their 12 games at the venue. At the same time,
Pune FC have only picked up 19 points in their 12 games played in Pune and look to re-establish their dominance in their home fort come these last few games of the season.
Pune FC, fresh from getting back to winning ways against ONGC, will hope that the run extends at home, including two more games (Air-India, Pailan Arrows) over the next three weeks.
Ahead of the face-off, Pune FC has an injury worry, with winger Tsewang Karma ruled out. Karma picked up an ankle injury in the last match at New Delhi.
On the other hand, central defender Chika Wali serves a one-match suspension having picked up his 4th yellow card in Round 24.
Left wing back Gurjinder Kumar is back in the side after recovering from a groin sprain. The other changes to the squad will be the inclusion of Caitano Costa, Khantang Paite and Subash Singh.
Over the last couple seasons Pune FC have had a good record against Air-India. Unbeaten in 6, with 4 wins and 2 draws with wins in the corresponding nominal home encounters in the league at Balewadi.
Although it wasn't always easy for Pune FC against the Airmen in their season debut season, when Air-India had won 3 out of the 4 games played.
FORM RUN (Last 5 Matches)
Air-India (13th; 19 points): L-L-L-D-L
Pune FC (3rd; 40 points): W-L-W-D-W
22/01/12 I-L Pune FC 2-2 Air India at Pune
24/11/11 I-L Pune FC 2-0 Air-India at Pune
13/10/11 DC Pune FC 2-1 Air India at New Delhi
04/03/11 I-L Pune FC 2-1 Air-India at Pune
03/01/11 I-L Air-India 0-0 Pune FC at Kolhapur
23/09/10 FEC Air-India 0-2 Pune FC at Cuttack
14/03/10 I-L Air-India 1-0 Pune FC at Mumbai
24/12/09 FEC Pune FC 1-1 Air-India at Guwahati
18/10/09 I-L Pune FC 0-1 Air India at Pune
30/08/09 IFA Air-India 2-1 Pune FC at Kolkata
--IBNS (Posted on 19-04-2013)