The AIFFa��s blue ribbon tournament and premier knockout competition is all set to kick-off on the 17th with Group A and Group B being played at the Balewadi Sports Complex and Group C and Group D being played at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata. TheHardTackle brings you an in-depth preview of Group A and Group B to be held in Pune.

Group A

Royal Wahingdoh FC,A�Mcdowell Mohun Bagan, Churchill Brothers and Shilong Lajong FC.

Royal Wahingdoh FC:

If someone believes in fairy-tales then this group has it. Who, apart from the people of the North East, knew Royal Wahingdoh before the start of last season? Carlton Chapman was their biggest signing and their gateway to popularity outside the North East although he was on the bench guiding his young and talented wards from the technical area. But therea��s something about North East football that gives the harshest of Indian football critics a reason to hope. There are some supremely talented footballers in the North East and when you get someone of the likes of Carlton Chapman to nurture them, look what you get. From a team that many did not even hear about, to a team that qualified for the final phase of the I-League 2 last year without foreigners and a team that has qualified for the Federation Cup 2011.

Royal Wahingdoh – Ready to challenge the big boys

Therea��s no denying of the fact that Royal Wahingdoh could cause a major upset in this group. For those who dona��t know, they are the most widely supported club in Shillong and have even a larger fan base than Shillong Lajong. They are also the reigning Shillong Premier League Champions having pipped Lajong to the post last season. The fact that they are fresh from playing three matches will come in handy for them Wahingdoh travel to Pune with a perfect record winning all of their qualifying games against ONGC, Southern Samity and United Sikkim FC.

They scored five goals and conceded just once in their three games. Their biggest victory was no doubt the 1-0 win over Bhaichung Bhutiaa��s United Sikkim FC that had several high profile players players like Govin Singh and Renedy Singh in their ranks. Their foreign striker Bawar Beekay, a Liberian was a perfect foil for young Jackie Chand Singh who scored two goals against ONGC. Former JCT stopper and Nigerian, Omolaja Karim has also signed for Wahingdoh and was brilliant in defense for them and also got himself on the score sheet scoring the crucial winner against Sikkim United. Karim along with Francis Egware, a Nigerian formed a brilliant partnership at the back for Wahingdoh.

The best thing for Carlton Chapmana��s side is that they are young and they have nothing to fear. He himself has said that this would be a learning experience for hi steam. The Wahingdoh midfield is young and the likes of Satya and Bowri have blistering pace. The young boys from Mizoram- Satya and Mala can be dangerous in the centre of midfield. Wahingdoh also have Bhutanese striker Chencho to count on. Thgyeir first test is against mighty Mohun Bagan followed by Churchill Brothers and lastly the lip smacking Shillong derby with Lajong.

Mohun Bagan:

They played second fiddle to East Bengal for the most of last season and how the Mariners will be hoping for some revenge. Last year was disaster for the Green and Maroons and this year under new coach Steve Darby, they will look to get their season off to a solid start. Bagan have made solid signings this season. Apart from old warhorse Jose Barreto, all their foreigners have been new signings with the prized catch of Odafe Okolie being the biggest headline maker of the season. Their Brazilian playmaker Hudson Lima Silva has been talked off as one of the best midfielders playing in the country while Aussie Simon Storey will help shore up the defense that also has the likes of Surkumar Singh and N. Mohanraj. Odafa Okolie and Sunil Chhetri look automatic starters in attack, whileA� Syed Rahim Nabi, Hudson Lima, N.P. Pradeep and Snehasish Chakraborthy look to be the front-runners for a midfield slot.

The Mariners have a tricky double header against their Shillong opponents – first against Wahingdoh and then against Lajong, followed by the all important clash against Chuchill Brothers. The best thing about the Mohun Bagn squad this season is their depth in the squad. On paper they have two good players for every position, something that they lacked last season. Jewel Raja and Manish Mathani can take over should Hudson and Pradeep be forced to sit out. Barreto will have a role to play during the course of the game as an impact player. The defense also has the likes of Kingshuk Debnath and N. Mohanraj as back up. On paper their squad looks well balanced and Steve Darby will be raring to kick start his Indian career in style.

Shillong Lajong:

After a years hiatus Shillong Lajong will be hoping to re live the memories of 2009 where they reached the final before falling to mighty East Bengal on penalties. Not much has changed for Lajong since 2009 where they reached the Final of the Federation Cup but then got relegated from the League at the end of the season. Their core group of players are still with the team. Goalkeeper Gumpe Rime, after recovering from a hamstring injury, will continue to guard the goal this time around hoping to repeat the performance of 2009. Aiboor Khongjee had done well for them in defense during the I-League 2 and will once again be relied upon. Wailamai Passah who was on the radar of several clubs including Dempo after a great showing in the second division League will be their mainstay in defense. Genius Zenith, Henry Gangte and James Giblee were their standout performers last season and will once again hold the key to the link between the strikers and the defenders. Seikhohau Tuboi and newly signed John Menyongor from United Sikkim will play upfront.

This certainly looks a tough group for Shillong Lajong to qualify from but strange things have happened in football. Their first game against Churchill Brothers is crucial. Should they put it across their Goan giants they would feel confident of getting something out of their games against Mohun Bagan and Wahingdoh that will give them a good chance at qualifying from the group.

Churchill Brothers:

The equation is simple for new Churchill Brothers coach, Manuel Gomes. Win the only trophy that is missing frim the Churchill cabinet. For years Churchill Alemao has tried for this trophy but has failed every time. Coaches have come from Morocco, Serbia, Nigeria, Singapore and Malaysia, but have failed to deliver this trophy. Its now the turn of a Portuguese coach to try and fashion a Churchill win in the federation Cup.

They have a new loom team this season, thanks to a mass exodus of players – the biggest of which has been Nigerian goal machine, Odafa Okolie. Although the bench strength looks wafer thin, the starting eleven does look strong on paper. Gourmangi Singh and new signing, 6a��4a�? Antun Kovacic will be the automatic choice for centre backs along with Denzil Franco and D. Ravanan. Beto will marshal the midfield and will have the support of Zakeer M, while India teammates, Steven Dias on the right and Lalrindika Ralte on the left will look to provide the killer crosses. Henri Antchouet and Mohammad Rafi will play upfront though they also have the option of N.D. Opara and Xavier Vujaykumar to fill up in case of injury.

Revenge will definitely be on the cards when Churchill play their first match against Lajong. It was the Shillong team that outplayed Churchill in the semifinals of the 2009 Federation Cup and the Goans will look to make amends. Royal Wahingdoh follows for them proceeded by the big clash and possibly the quarterfinal clash against Mohun Bagan.

Group-A Predicted Standings:

1. Mcdowell Mohun Bagan
2. Churchill Brothers
3. Shillong Lajong
4. Royal Wahingdoh

Group B

Salgaocar Sports Club, Pailan Arrows, Mumbai FC and HAL SC.

Salgaocar SC:

They may be the reigning I-League champions, but thata��s no guarantee for a Federation Cup knock-out berth. Karim Bencherifa will know that well after the 6-1 thrashing they got against Mohun Bagan last year. That performance in many ways turned around Salgaocar’s season. They dropped a couple of players after that annihilation and the results began to show instantly in the I-League. The rest as they say is history. Salgaocar went on to have a brilliant season, clinching the I-League crown from Dempo Sports Club on the final day of the season.

Fast forward to 2011 and the squad has a good mixture of experience and young talent waiting to explode. Their most valuable player of last season Yusif Yakubu has left along with a couple of defenders and midfielders. But Karim has spent wisely in the transfer window and has brought some youngsters who are just waiting for a chance to prove their mettle. The striking department has been strengthened with the addition of Edeh Chidi and Junior Elijah although the services of Yakubu will be missed.

Ryuji Sueoka will start with Edeh Chidi in attack with Junior coming on possibly as a substitute. Salgaocar are spoilt for choice in midfield with Tomba Singh, Rocus Lamare, Anthony Barbosa, Francis Fernandes, Beevan Da��Mello. Gilbert Oliveira, Ishfaq Ahmed and Rahul Kumar, all jostling for the four midfield spots available. Luciano is the only certain starter in defense along with Mehraj. Jaspal Parmar.I. Meitei, Rino Anto and Randeep Singh could be the choices for left and right back respectively. The luck of the draw has certainly been kind on the I-League champions. They have a relatively easy group and should progress from here. They first play Mumbai FC followed by HAL and Pailan Arrows.

It will not be a bed of roses for the
reigning I-League Champions in Fed Cup


If therea��s one man HAL have to thank for keeping them up last season ita��s Xavier Vijaykumar. The veterana��s two goals against defending champions Dempo in Goa on the final day of the season secured HALa��s place in the top flight for yet another season. And as they prepare for life without their long serving player, they know the task at hand is huge.

First up for them is the Federation Cup. A tournament they would gladly trade for a place in the I-League next season. The HAL squad has been severely weakened this season. Along with Xavier Vijaykumar, Jai Kumar has also left for Churchill Brothers, while Murali Joseph has been roped in by Mohun Bagan. The signing of Biju Kumar and Sudeesh Mutath has bolstered the HAL midfield while Joseph Adeola will be the key to HALa��s defense.

Their first game against Pailan Arrows will be a real tester for Muraleedharan. If HAL could come out with something from this match they could hope at least for a second place finish. Their second game against Salgaocar would be their toughest while they could definitely get something out of the game against Mumbai FC.

Mumbai FC

Another season of uncertainty and another season of financial turmoil engulfs Mumbai FC yet again. The only silver lining for them is that coach Khalid Jamil will be with them for another season. They have still to announce their full squad this season and have hardly had any pre-season training.

Lalam Puia from Chirag and Cavin Lobo from Dempo have been good signings for them and Khalid Jamil will hope that they get him the goals. Their midfield mainstay, Bungo Singh has left for Mohun Bagan and striker Henry Ezeh decided to switch loyalties to local rivals Air India, thus leaving a big void in midfield and striking department. Noel Wilson and Abhishek Yadav look set to continue with the club for another season while their hopes will be on Nicholas Rodrigues to deliver some dangerous balls in the box and to continue where he left off from last season.

The times look uncertain for Mumbai FC but then Khalid Jamil has been their trump card and has always delivered with the limited resources he had on offer. Qualification from this group looks extremely tough for them. They would do well to finish second and get some valuable match practice ahead of the I-League season. They will certainly target their final two games against Pailan Arrows and HAL as games where they can get on the scoreboard and hopefully give their squad some much needed confidence

Pailan Arrows

A new name and a new place for the Indian Arrows will hopefully herald a new direction for the India hopefuls. The stars of last season are no longer there with the club but they have some talented youngsters. Shilton Da��Silva, Tirthankar Sarkar and Jibon Singh look their most promising players along with C.S. Sabeeth. The defense looks a bit weak on paper and has plenty of new faces.

Sukhwinder Singha��s team have played a couple of warm up games and has gauged the strengths and weaknesses of his team already. They are beginning to gel well and could definitely pull off a shock win in theis group. Their strikers are young and taleted and the likes of Holicharan Nazary and Malasawmfela look exciting prospects. Indian Arrows will look to consolidate this season and a good start in the Federation Cup will be the prefect tonic for the new season.

They have done well last year beating JCT and will look to spring a few more surprises. Shilton, Jibon and Tirthankar look automatic starters in midfield while Bijendra Rai and Kishanu Banerjee will have to fight for the final spot. The weak link for them would definitely be their defense – something that Sukhi will have to work on before the I-League starts. Their first two games against HAL and Mumbai FC will give them a good chance to atleast gain a point or two.

Group-B Predicted Standings:

1. Salgaocar SC
2. Pailan Arrows
3. Mumbai FC

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