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).