I-League 2013-14 : Mid-Season Review
A wind of change is blowing through Indian football. I am not talking about India getting the rights to host the 2017 U-17 World Cup, or maybe the Club World Cup in 2015 /16. I am not even talking of the much-hyped IMG-Reliance football league where big names who retired recently from football will play for city-based Indian franchises. I am talking of a much humbler tournament, in existence for nearly 15 years now, the I-League – India’s top division football league.
The I-league for the season has reached an interesting juncture where around five out of 13 teams are now in contention to win the league. Leading the pack is a debutant. Kaushik Saha takes a look at the teams, where they stand, and their prospects of winning the league
Let us take a look at the league table for 2013-14 season at the halfway stage
At this point, when almost all the teams have played each other at least once and some have even locked horns with each other twice, the leader is not a team from traditional Indian football powerhouses like Goa or Kolkata, but Bengaluru FC. This team was formed only in 2013 after Air India and ONGC expressed their inability to field teams in 2013-14 I-League and the All India Football Federation called for bids for new teams based on cash payment.
The Jindal group came forward and put together a team under the astute guidance of former EPL player Ashley Westwood. He assembled some good players from other teams. At the top of the pack was the Indian captain and footballer of the year Sunil Chhetri, followed by former East Bengal striker Robin Singh and Australian footballer Sean Rooney who scored Bengaluru’s first ever I-League goal against Mohun Bagan. The young team repaid the faith with some solid performances, managing a draw with former champions Mohun Bagan in their first match, followed by a victory over Rangdajied United of Shillong, their fellow debutants this year. Whether they will go on to win the league or not is a tricky question at this stage given their lack of experience at the highest level. Let’s see how other teams have fared so far :
Sporting Clube de Goa
This team was in the middle of the table till their seventh match. Then they finally pulled up their socks and went on a winning spree. They have won their last four matches, including an away one against fellow title contenders Salgaocar FC and a 5-1 win over Shillong Lajong at home. It is important to note that SCG have a predominantly Indian squad, and mostly from Goa – the players have practiced together for a long time and have a good understanding amongst each other. This helped them in crucial moments, such as the away victory against Mohun Bagan when their midfield (manned mostly by local players) combined to set up a goal. Yes, they had their share of setbacks, such as a soul-crushing loss to Mohammedan at home, but they seem to be on an upward trend again.
Shillong Lajong FC
Shillong and other parts of northeast India have supplied quality footballers to other clubs in India – Bhaichung Bhutia, Naoba Singh, Shlo Malsawmtluanga, Reisangmei Vashum and several others for long. Since the late 2000s, they had their first “indigenous” team – Shillong Lajong FC, competing in the top flight of Indian domestic football. Shillong had a tough time in the past seasons, even got demoted to the second division in the 2010-11 season. But they came back with a team full of local talent including J-Legaue player Taisuke Matsuage, to add some teeth.
Despite being on the wrong end of two of the heaviest defeats this season, which reflects in their negative goal difference (0-4 to East Bengal at home and 1-5 to SCG away), they have done well to record away wins over Mumbai and Dempo, and home wins over difficult Goanese teams Dempo and Salgaocar. However, they might find it difficult to maintain the momentum given that they will play mostly away matches from now on, and against title contenders like East Bengal and Pune FC. Their lack of experience might not serve them well. But it would be fantastic to see them finish well and qualify for the continental championships.
Pune FC is highly regarded as a very professionally managed team. Owned by the Ashok Piramal group, they focus a lot on selling merchandise through their fan clubs. Besides, they have the most well-maintained stadium in the country – the football ground of Balewadi Sports Complex at Pune. This year, they played in the qualifying stages of AFC Champions League, Asia’s top-tier club competition – by virtue of finishing second in the I-League last season and for their consistent performances elsewhere. This year, they have an interesting mix of players – a former MLS player, Calum Angus, who has been a defensive mainstay and Shamnugam Venkatesh, one of the senior most and well known Indian footballers who has won the National Football League with three different clubs in the past.
However, in the I-league, they have blown hot and cold – they started off well, slumped towards the end of the first half which saw them slide from firstto fourthrank. The loss at home to Mumbai FC in the Maharashtra Derby proved crucial and though they won away at United SC, they don’t look like title contenders anymore, especially after a 1-3 loss against Mohun Bagan away where Odafa Okolie toyed with them. They have been poor travellers, losing to SCG and even Rangdajied away while drawing with Salgaocar Lajong and Dempo, and though they have beaten Bengaluru FC at home – in the second leg they will have to play both East Bengal and Bengaluru away. Overall, they might finish mid-table this season.
One of the earliest winners of the National Football League, Salgaocar is a consistent performer in the Indian football scene and is a contender for the I-Legaue every year. This year they have a young but good squad – with the likes of former JCT and India goalkeeper Karanjit Singh. They started off well, leading at a point of time after winning away matches against Churchill Brothers, Mumbai FC, East Bengal and United SC – yet a series of losses towards the end of the first half (home defeat to SCG and home and away defeats to Bengaluru FC and Lajong) now sees them languishing at fifth, barely a point ahead of East Bengal, who has played three matches less. However, in the second half, they have easier matches to play against Mohun Bagan, Mumbai FC and last-placed two teams Rangdajied and Churchill Brothers at home. They are expected to storm back, and can even finish in the top three, given that they no longer have to play fellow title contenders.
Kingfisher East Bengal
East Bengal has a habit of throwing away good starts. This season, due to their continental commitments, they started late but with a thumping 4-0 away victory at Shillong Lajong. Their African recruits James Moga and Edeh Chidi were said to be in good touch and Indians – especially Dika, Lobo and Arnab Mondal more than made up for the loss of their inspirational captain Mehtab to an injury early in the season. They have won home and away matches versus table-toppers Bengaluru FC, yet lost crucial matches against Salgaocar and Dempo at home and Mumbai FC away. They brought cheer to their fans by winning the oldest and most fiercely competed derby in India – the Kolkata Derby (beat Mohun Bagan 1-0), but then had an uninspiring draw vs. United SC, a match in which they should have won by a couple of goals.
East Bengal have a few easy matches in their second half – they play most of their fellow title contenders at home. They have a team which is on the rise, and now in Armando Colaco they have a coach who knows what it takes to win the League. Armando Colaco, as coach of Dempo has won the I-League an unprecedented five times and is perhaps the most successful Indian coach in the past quarter of a century. But it remains to be seen if he can replicate similar success with another club, away from the state where he achieved miracles. And he has taken over the coaching duties of East Bengal at a time when they were passing through a rough phase under their former coach, Brazilian Marcos Falopa. Hopefully this time they can bring the league to Kolkata, which was last achieved nearly a decade back.
McDowell Mohun Bagan
Mohun Bagan have gone through its share of problems this season, but the management has kept their faith in the coach and a young team. Coach Karim Bencharifa hasn’t yet achieved a high level of consistency with the team, but they have a cohesiveness running through the squad led by veteran striker Okolie Odafa. They have a four-time National League champion Sandip Nandy under the bar and young local talent Souvik Chakrabarty manning their defense. They are on a par with East Bengal on the points table, although they have played four more matches than their local rivals. They started off the season without Odafa who was out with an injury and yet did well to snatch two away draws at Bengaluru and Churchill Brothers.
Then began a roller-coaster ride – with an away defeat to Pune, a home defeat to SCG, a home win vs. Salgaocar FC and an away win at Mumbai, thanks to a fit and in-form Odafa. However, home defeats to East Bengal, Rangdajied (their first victory in this season) and Dempo saw them slide to the lower half of the league. Finally, a thumping home victory over Pune FC helped them end the year on a high. Given their inconsistency, not much is expected of them in the second half as well, a win here and there followed by defeats and draws from unexpected quarters means their supporters would be looking forward to the return leg of the Kolkata Derby for some solace. However, now that they are focussing on young local talent, they might be expected to perform better over the next few years and maybe even add a trophy or more to their illustrious cabinet.
United Sports Club
United SC has had a nightmarish start to the season. They lost their title sponsor, and couldn’t afford to pay their players. But the loyalists stayed put, including their best player over the past few seasons, Ranti Martins and their captain – veteran Indian footballer Deepak Mondal. Ranti had attractive offers from almost all big clubs in India, but he decided to play at a much lower annual salary at United SC. United SC have played the same number of matches, is tied with Mohun Bagan on the points tally and is ranked lower only on goal difference. But they have slid towards the close of the first half with a few losses – a home defeat to Pune and an away defeat to SCG. Their inconsistency has been evident when in the middle of a good run they drew Dempo at home and Pune away and lost 0-4 to Mohun Bagan. In the second half, they have an even mix of easy and tough matches, but they are not seen as anything more than spoilers at this stage and are likely to finish in the middle of the table.
They looked a very strong team on paper at the beginning of the season, with their Afghan trio and Yusif Yakubu, one of the best ever strikers to have played in Indian football in the last decade. They also have a good mix of Indian stars, Climax Lawrence and NP Pradeep l who add a good blend of experience and youth. Given the team, Mumbai has underperformed, losing at home to Mohun Bagan, Salgaocar and Lajong FC. They recorded a series of draws in matches they should have won comfortably against SCG, Dempo and lowly ranked Rangdajied at home. They have beaten East Bengal at home and Pune away, but in their second leg, they have tough matches coming, and are unlikely to move up the table further.
Dempo Sports Club
On paper, they have a very good team – a good mix of youth — Holicharan Narzary of the erstwhile Pailan Arrows which was disbanded after the last season and experience — Mahesh Gawli, Jewel Raja– who have been there, done that (winning the league). However, the change of their talismanic coach Armando Colaco seems to have affected them so much that barring away victories at Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, they don’t have any good performance to speak about. They have endured humiliating home losses to Lajong and Prayag. Another league winning mastermind, Subhash Bhowmick (who has won the league with East Bengal and Churchill Brothers in the past), has now been given the charge to turn their fortunes. Can he can pull them up to the top half of the league? Time will tell.
Mohammedan Sporting Club
Mohammedan Sporting was not expected to trouble anybody at the start of the season, and the script has gone on expected lines. They are languishing at eleventh spot on the table and relegation seems a distinct possibility. It’s not that they don’t have a good team. They had a fitter and goal hungrier Tolgay Ozebe, Pen Orji and Brazilian Josimar to start with. They had the experience of Rakesh Masih, Nirmal Chhetri and Mehrajuddin Wadoo. They started the season on a positive note with hope of a reversal in fortunes after winning the Durand Cup in 2013 and few matches in the Calcutta League. But, barring a historic away victory against SCG, they don’t have much to show in the I-League. They have away matches against most of the title contenders in the second leg. Now with terribly out of form Tolgay released, it will be a miracle if they save the drop.
Rangdajied United FC
They qualified for the top division of the I-League this year by winning the I-League second division last year. Sponsored by Italian athletic footwear and apparel manufacturer Diadora, they have a very young team with only goalkeeper Subrata Pal lending a bit of experience. Not only were they not expected to cause any major upset, they were in fact one of the teams marked out for relegation at the beginning of the season. They certainly did not disappoint the bookmakers. It’s not that they didn’t try – they beat Mohun Bagan away and earned a hard fought win over Pune at home. In the historic Shillong Derby, they had Lajong on the mat, and the match ended in a 1-1 draw. Rangdajied has a mixed set of matches in the second leg, but is not expected to do much from now on.
Churchill Brothers SC
The author himself is surprised to mention Churchill Brothers at the bottom of the table. The champions of last season are having a very bad year. Letting go of technical director Subhash Bhowmick (who masterminded their l-league victory last season) was not a very good sign, but then they have a history of letting go of coaches after short periods of time. As if losing in the opening round of the AFC Cup 2012-13 was not enough, they have performed abysmally this season, despite having a good and balanced team. They have a difficult second leg as well, but the fact that they have a history of winning means they have a chance to avoid relegation. They also have their continental engagements, but they won’t hesitate to sacrifice that to avoid the drop there.
Overall, there’s an exciting second leg of the I-league awaiting us. There will be the classic derbies at Goa, Kolkata and Shillong. There are about five teams who are title contenders, but Bengaluru FC looks a clear leader at this stage. Given their form and consistency, they look all set to seal it unless SCG or East Bengal can stop their juggernaut. So brace yourselves for some exciting football, one that will (hopefully) take Indian domestic football a step forward.