An Eye on I-League : Coaches Finding it Too Hot to Handle
As the battle for supremacy in the Indian National football league gears up towards its second month, the goals start to dry up. This was expected as teams start to iron out the aberrations and coaches get a hang of their defensive organization. Mind you, it is always difficult to create goal-scoring opportunities and then, most importantly, finish it as far as Indian football is concerned. Hence the teams opt for the easier alternative – build up a tight defence, and hope for the best on the break or from the set pieces.
Intriguing battles are on at the top division football league in India. Debojyoti Chakraborty tracks down the proceedings in the I-League through this monthly review series. Here is the second instalment
There were a few exceptions here and there. But the one catching everyone’s imagination is the 10-1 demolition of United Sikkim by the big spending Prayag United. Star forward Ranti Martins scored a hat-trick to take his tally to an astonishing 11 goals in five matches. This was a dream debut for the new Dutch coach Eelco Schattorie – one of the five new coaches to be involved thus far – who replaced Sanjay Sen after failing to win their previous two fixtures. While it may be argued that 7 points from four matches with only a single bad game against Shillong Lajong FC is not worthy of a sack, Sen had to go mainly because of his (lack of) commanding skills and inability to handle a star-studded side. United Sikkim’s man in charge, Philippe De Ridder from Belgium was replaced immediately after the thumping by the founder member and Indian football icon Baichung Bhutia. His last match as a player in Round 4 against Pailan Arrows was a disappointing one as he was given marching orders after being shown two yellow cards within 7 minutes of coming on as a second half substitute. His debut as a manager was not a memorable one either, but a 1-2 defeat to Sporting Club de Goa was a far more respectable one. Bhutia has a tough job in hand as he tries to pull his club out of the relegation zone.
Another man waiting his debut as the man in charge is Moroccan coach Karim Bencherifa. He takes over the charges of Mohun Bagan from the caretaker boss Mridul Banerjee after the later produced a fine run of form which saw Mohun Bagan gather 7 points from four matches – same as another departing coach, Sen. It remains to be seen how Bagan performs under their third coach as early as in the second month of the league. The onus will be on talismanic front man Odafe Okolie who has already scored a hat-trick in the campaign.
Karim changes hot seat from Salgaocar, who had to make overnight arrangements to appoint the Englishman David Booth as their coach. Due to his contract clauses, Karim was not able to take up the job at the Kolkata club for one month after he furnished his resignation letter to the Goan club. In this period, Salgaocar did little better than winning their first game in the league and they find themselves dangerously close to the drop zone having scored the least number of goals so far in the campaign. Ironically, Salgaocar has lost their Round 6 match to Karim’s new club, Mohun Bagan by 3-0.
We can already see Pailan Arrows, the under-19 Indian team put up by AIFF, emerging as the surprise package of the season. Under the astute leadership of Australian coach Arthur Papas, some of the best young talents of India have shown some tremendous fighting spirit. Even after two successive defeats – the last against the high-flying Prayag United in a hard fought 1-2 encounter – they find themselves in a respectable mid-table position.
Two teams with the most flamboyant attacking powers and the tightest defence find themselves locking horns at the top of the league. Prayag United have racked up close to four goals per match on an average, half of which have come from Ranti Martins. Costa Rican World Cupper Carlos Hernández playing in the hole has been the main architect and his growing influence in Prayag’s game could prove to be decisive in the end. Dempo FC is third in the table, albeit on goal difference and the defending champions remain the team to beat even if they are not yet at their best. Their shocking loss in the last round to lowly ONGC (their first win of the season) is surely a wakeup call to guard against any complacency. This slip-up allowed East Bengal, on the back of two consecutive away wins, to take up the pole position. It is an attribute to their stabilised setup under Australian coach Trevor Morgan, enviable squad depth and the meanest defensive record – conceding just one goal so far in 6 matches. Their 3-0 win away from home against Churchill Brothers – the match highlighted by Manandeep Singh’s wonder goal – was a strong statement of their intent. After coming second best in the previous two editions, Morgan is determined to lay his hands on the trophy after already winning the domestic cup – the Federation Cup. East Bengal have not lost in their last 28 matches, an incredible fate. The world record is currently held by ASEC Abidjan (Ivory Coast) with 108 (!!) unbeaten matches during 1989-1994 in all domestic competitions. We shall come to know how far East Bengal can reach in the coming months.
These are still early days in the league. No two consecutive teams in the league table are separated by more than two points, every team has at least one win under their belt and East Bengal remains the only undefeated team in the league. The competition is only going to increase at either end of the table while there will be some upsets on the cards in the coming months. While Ranti is the star man for Prayag, other title contenders like East Bengal and Dempo FC are more relying on their team games. Some unknown faces from Lajong FC and Pailan Arrows are attracting bigger clubs’ attention and some established players are starting their downhill journey. We shall cover all this and much more in the next month.
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