Several Indian households might be hooked to their television screens with the ongoing cricket World Cup providing ample entertainment, but the twists and turns that the I-league had to offer during the past month or so has offered the country’s football faithful their own share of fun. As India’s clash with Nepal in the Preliminary Joint Qualification round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia forces the league into a prolonged break, we take a look at the performance of the clubs in the hunt for the crown and predict how the title race could further unfold.
(P7 W4 D3 L0)
Having made an indifferent start to the season, partly due to the haphazard scheduling of matches, the Mariners have propelled their way to the top of the pile with a game in hand. The almost perfect show in the 4-1 win over defending champions, in the last week of February, speaks about the sort of spell that the historic club are currently enjoying under manager Sanjoy Sen.
Players to look out for: Along with the talismanic top-scorer for the club this season Katsumi Yusa and the electric Haitian winger Sony Norde, the rise of domestic footballers has been a key to the Kolkata side’s undefeated run in the 2014/15 campaign. Leading this bunch is the 28-year-old Balwant Singh, who was also the first Indian to score in the ISL. In Jeje Lalpekhlua’s initial absence, the Punjab-born striker shouldered the responsibility in front of goal and has now cemented his place in the starting lineup with three goals in seven appearances to his name; earning him a call-up for the national side.
Another Mariner who seems to have caught the eye of Stephen Constantine is right-back Pritam Kotal. Being one of the only three players to play every minute for his club this season, the 21-year-old has made the most of his opportunities. In addition to being part of the second most disciplined defense of the season so far, he also netted the lone goal in his team’s 1-0 win over Pune earlier in February.
Scope for improvement: Everything that can go right is going so for Sanjoy Sen at the moment. His team share the best offensive record in the season as the back-line too has been pretty tidy, barring the seven-goal thriller against Shillong Lajong on their last match-day in February. The only major cause of concern for Sen is his team’s away form. Despite boasting of a hundred percent record at the Salt Lake Stadium, the Mariners have failed to reproduce this form elsewhere, managing just one win from four matches; an area where Sanjoy Sen would want his men to improve if they are to maintain their supremacy at the top of the table by the end of this season.
Prediction: Mohun Bagan have made a head start in the search for their first I-league crown. If the injury list does not feature too many names during the remainder of the season, the decorated club could well be on course for at least a top-three finish.
(P7 W3 D3 L1)
When you talk about one half of a long-standing rivalry, the other one can’t be too far away. Just three points adrift the leaders, East Bengal occupy the number five position on the table with one game in hand. After collecting seven points from their three opening fixtures of the campaign, the runners-up from last season dropped as many in their next three; add a 4-1 away thrashing from Johor Darul Ta’zim in an AFC Cup league encounter late in February. But, not the ones to go down without a fight, the Red and Gold bounced back in the league with a 5-1 decimation of Dempo SC in their own backyard.
Players to look out for: Ranti Martins once again presented his case in front of Nigeria’s selection panel by taking the net-bursting duties all by himself in the five-goal rout against his former club, which ultimately costed Arthur Pappas his job. The two-time I-league Foreigner of the Year now has 10 goals already this season; just two shy of his tally from last time, with more than half of the season yet to be played.
Martins being the biggest source of goals for the Lal Holud this season, only two other men have scored for the Kolkata club. Among them is the left winger Abinash Ruidas. He impressed in the last edition of the Calcutta Premier League and has looked sharp on his flank in the four appearances that he has made for his new club. It would be interesting to see him combine with Mehtab Hussain and Lalrindika Ralte in midfield during the remainder of the season.
Scope for improvement: It takes time for every club to settle down with a change in manager. And this could well be the case with Eelco Schattorie taking over the reins at East Bengal recently. He sounded disappointed with the way his team played in the 5-1 win and has asked fans to be realistic with their expectations this season. He has demanded the players to get accustomed to his style of play and to also pull up their socks in terms of fitness levels.
Moreover, continental football is proving to be somewhat of a distraction for the Red and Gold. They recently filed a petition with the AFC to reschedule their matches owing to the unavailability of players on national duty. Perhaps, they could take cue from their Bengaluru counterparts who are treating a similar situation as an opportunity for their bench to prove its mettle.
Prediction: An air of inconsistency surrounds the club at the moment. They would do well to finish in the top-three with the way things are going on at the moment.
… part 2 to follow….