An Eye on I-League : The Ball gets Rolling
With the top division football league in India commencing this month, intriguing battles await the coming weeks. Debojyoti Chakraborty tracks down the proceedings in the I-League through a monthly review series. Here is the first instalment
The national football league of India, popularly known as the I-League, kick-started on October 6, 2012 with a new sense of expectation. Much like the football revolution taking place in England, a lesser known club – Prayag United, who have not won anything significant till date in their short history – have been making the news by building a strong team, with a string of high-profile signings, to compete in this year’s edition. With the usual favourites, Dempo and some strong contenders like East Bengal, Churchill Brothers and Salgaocar already in the fray, this will surely light up the scene in coming months.
There was no shortage of goals in the first round of matches. Only East Bengal and Sporting Clube de Goa drew blanks. Other than that, each match saw at least two goals with Prayag United’s 5-1 hammering of Air India topping the charts. Prayag United is the team to watch out for this season as they have splashed out cash (with a bit of Middle-East / Russian influence!) and their star man Ranti Martins, captured from Goa, did not disappoint as he started the campaign with a hat-trick. This win was even more impressive considering they had to play with ten men for 70 minutes after their influential centre-half, Bello Rasaq got sent off.
Similarly impressive were United Sikkim, brainchild of the iconic Indian forward Baichung Bhutia, who twice came back from behind to beat Salgaocar in a 3-2 thriller. Pailan Arrows, the U-19 team put up by the AIFF, showed similar fighting spirit to defeat Mumbai FC by the same scoreline. ONGC, another lowly football club in the competition, too put up a brave face but lost 2-3 to Pune FC.
There was no such fight seen in the match against Shillong Lajong where Mohun Bagan lost 0-2. After the much hyped pairing of Odafa Okolie and Tolgay Özbey misfired there was not much left in the team to draw inspiration from. Elsewhere, Dempo had the final say in a 2-1 local derby win over Churchill Brothers.
Dempo showed why they are the best club in India for the last few years with a 5-0 thrashing of local rivals Sporting Clube de Goa. Churchill Brothers also kept up the pace by beating ONGC with similar margins. Another title contender, East Bengal, had to rely on a deflected free kick to win by 1-0 against United Sikkim.
Prayag United kept up their good show and in the process brought in more misery for Mohun Bagan with a 2-1 win. This result saw the Kolkata giants with no points from two matches and brought in the first casualty of the season in the form of coach Santosh Kashyap.
Elsewhere, Pailan Arrows kept on surprising people with their back-to-back win, this time against Mumbai FC while Pune FC kept up their pace with another win against Mumbai FC. Shillong Lajong were able to hold on to a 1-1 draw against Salgaocar, thus keeping the Goan club in the bottom half of the table.
So, after two rounds of matches, we have seen 50 goals at an average of more than 3.5 per game and already one of the coaches have been shown the exit door. Kashyap is not going to be the last man sacked this season, one may feel. Dempo sit pretty at the top of the table with team of the season, Prayag United. Joining them are the steady Pune FC and minnows Pailan Arrows, who have won two matches – same number of wins they could manage in the entire last season. Mumbai FC, Mohun Bagan, Air India and ONGC are all looking to open their accounts while Sporting Clube de Goa will be the last team this season to score a goal. But these are early days and we are sure more surprises and drama will be unfolded before we draw the curtains.
A flurry of goals speaks volumes of the foreign players’ – mainly forwards and advanced playmakers – influence in the I-League. So it is not surprising to see two foreigners with one hat-trick apiece already under their belt forming the partnership up front in our team of the month – Ranti Martins (Prayag United) and Akram Moghrabi (Churchill Brothers). The linkman would be Carlos Hernández who has already mesmerized everyone with his passing and free kick taking skills during his short stint with Prayag United. Beto from Churchill Brothers will give him able company in the middle of park who himself is another superb dead ball specialist. Clifford Miranda of Dempo will occupy the left side of the midfield by virtue of his brace against Sporting Clube de Goa. The last place in the midfield goes to the youngster from Pailan Arrows, Milan Singh Ongnam. Subhasish Roy Chowdhury from Dempo has looked very much assured under the bars and he takes the keeper’s spot. East Bengal is the only team with a clean sheet so far and much of that credit should go to centre-half Uga Okpara. He is partnered by Bilal Sheikh El Najarin from Churchill Brothers who has been strong in defence as well as scored one against ONGC. They are flanked by Sukhen Dey of Prayag United by virtue of his fine defensive display, especially against Mohun Bagan and Khangembam Jeevan Singh from Lajong FC.
Team of the month: Subhasish Roy Chowdhury (Dempo); Sukhen Dey (Prayag United), Uga Okpara (East Bengal), Bilal Sheikh El Najarin (Churchill Brothers), Khangembam Jeevan Singh (Lajong FC); Milan Singh Ongnam (Pailan Arrows), Beto (Churchill Brothers), Carlos Hernández (Prayag United), Clifford Miranda (Dempo); Ranti Martins (Prayag United), Akram Moghrabi (Churchill Brothers).