I-League 2013-14 : Mid-Season Review

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

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.

Let us take a look at the league table for 2013-14 season at the halfway stage

Table
I-League Table

 

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.

bengaluru-fc-1918138-1024x682
Sunil Chhetri joined Bengaluru FC

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

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.

Salgaocar S.C.

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 celebrate a goal
East Bengal celebrate a goal

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.

Mohun Bagan celebrate a goal
Mohun Bagan celebrate a goal

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.

Mumbai FC

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.

A scene from Dempo- Bengaluru FC
A scene from Dempo- Bengaluru FC match

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 vs. Mohammedan Sporting
Rangdajied vs. Mohammedan Sporting

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.

An Eye on I-League : Coaches Finding it Too Hot to Handle

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

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.

Please make them a bit competitive!

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.

New innings

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.

Indian national team coach Wim Koevermans with Arrows’ goalscorers Holicharan Narzary and Milan Singh

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.

Trevor Morgan: Masterminding an incredible run of 28 unbeaten games

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.

Till then… Follow Football, Follow Us!

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.

Ranti Martin opens his account with a hat-trick

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.

Santosh Kashyap: Those were the happy days!

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).

Indian National League (I-League) 2011-12 Season Review

With the Indian domestic football season having come to a close in May, Debojyoti Chakraborty summarizes the nation’s top-tier football league

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The top-tier football league in India, known as the I-League, came to a close in May and Dempo Sports Club won the 16th edition leaving behind 13 others vying for the honour. The tournament started in 1996-97 as the National Football League to bring in professionalism in an age-old and dying Indian football system. It may seem contrasting but the national team was at its highest ever FIFA ranking of 94 at the start of 1996 but has seen an all-time low of 165[1] in April, 2012. However, football remains a hugely popular sport in India, more so in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, where it is treated as a religion. Let us start our journey showcasing a recap of the season that just got over.