At-last the wait is over. I-League is back in its all new avtar. The 2011-12 season of I-League is all set to kick-off on 22nd October and it promises to be a grand first week with a few tasty battles lined-up on the very first day. Defending Champions Salgaocar Sports Club is all set to take on their bitter city rivals and four times National League Champions Dempo Sports Club in a thrilling Goan Derby on the opening day, while last season’s Runner-ups Kingfisher East Bengal will lock horns against Goa heavy-weights Churchill Brothers in a prestige battle on the very same day.

KINGFISHER EAST BENGAL v CHURCHILL BROTHERS
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Kolkata is all set to witness a gala opening ceremony before the scheduled kick-off of this mouth-watering encounter. Famous Bengal singer Nachiketa and Mir’s band “Bandage” will be performing at Yuvabharati Krirangan before the match begins. To add to the star attraction, India’s lawn tennis icon Leander Paes will be present in the opening ceremony and he will be declared as Indian Football’s “Brand Ambassador”  by the AIFF.

It will be even more exciting affair on the pitch. Both the heavy-weight teams will look to garner all three points and start their campaign on a winning note. East Bengal squad is on a high after winning their first trophy of the season when they got the better of Salgaocar in ONGC Super Cup last week. Under Trevor Morgan, East Bengal traditionally deploys a 4-1-3-2 formation, but Morgan might be forced to change the whole system because of their star midfielder Mehtab Hossain’s fitness concerns. It is an open secret that there is no proper replacement for Mehtab and presently there is no other player in the whole country who can play the dual role of a defensive screen along with that of a play-maker. Sushanth Mathew will once again be trusted to play Mehtab’s role if the “Double Cylinder” fails the fitness test ahead of the game.

Will Mehtab Hossain recover just in time?

Morgan will like to go in with the tried and tested eleven with Sandip Nandy manning the custody and Uga Okpara-Raju Gaekwad combo at the central defense. Naoba Singh is expected to get the nod to start on the right back slot, with Soumik Dey complementing him on the left side of the pitch.

In midfield Mehtab Hussain, if fit, will ply his trade as the deep-lying play-maker. Reisangmei Vasum will be the preferred right winger and Khan Thang Paite, who impressed one and all in Federation Cup and Super Cup, will keep his left wing slot in the starting line-up. Penn Orji is expected to play in the attacking mid-fielder’s role, just behind the two strikers. Robin Singh and one of the two foreign strikers, Alan Gow or Tolgay Ozbey, will form the attacking line-up. However if Morgan decides to go in with an all foreign strike partnership of Tolgay Ozbey and Alan Gow, then Penn will have to warm the substitutes’ benches because of the three foreigner role. In that case Sanju Pradhan will serve as the attacking midfielder.

For Churchill Brothers, once again for the fourth successive seaso,n Arindam Bhattacharya will guard the custody. In defense, they will have the Australian defender Antun Kovacic with his towering 6 feet 4 inches presence. He will be partnered by India international Gourmangi Singh in central defense. Denzil Franco and Ravanan are the expected starters at right and left back respectively.

Beto is doubtful too


Brazilian magician Beto is struggling with hamstring injury and is doubtful for the opening fixture. Impressive Lenny Rodrigues and MP Zakeer will be the most probable central midfield combo for the 2008-09 Champions. On the wings, they will have two Indian internationals in Steven Dias and Lalrindika Ralte.

In the absence of Beto, Churchill coach Manuel Gomes, popularly known as “Professor Necca”, will have the luxury to go in with two foreign strikers. Former Air India striker ND Opara will get the nod to start alongside their new high profile recruit Henri Antchouet, who has plied his trade  in as many as six countries including the likes of Saudi Arabia, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

TheHardTackle’s Players To Watch Out For:

Alan Gow (East Bengal)
Henry Antchouet (Churchill Brothers)

TheHardTackle’s Prediction:

Kingfisher East Bengal 2-1 Churchill Brother

HAL SC v CHIRAG UNITED KERALA
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It will be a battle of equals when Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Football Club will take on Chirag United Kerala, formerly known as Viva Kerala, in their opening round fixture to be played at the newly laid astro-turf ofBangalorefootball stadium. Both the teams had a disappointing Federation Cup campaign where they bowed out in the preliminary group stages.

Both the teams have gone through a see of changes in the transfer window and had to revamp their squad from scratches. The prime objective for both the teams would be to avoid the drop and retain their places in top tier football.

HAL, led by Nigerian defender Joseph Femi Adeola, would look to take advantage of home condition and notch up a win against fellow strugglers Chirag. HAL’s AFC A License holder coach Thyagaraj is expected to field a 4-4-2 formation featuring an all-foreign attacking combo of Jagaba Hamza and the newly recruited Serbian striker Sujdovic Aleksander. James Singh will be their key midfield player, supported by the experienced Gautam Debnath. In defense skipper Femi will have the company of Lilyan Kenneth to restrict the movements of opposition strikers.

Chirag United Kerala sacked their Chief Coach P Kunhikrishnan after the disappointing Fed Cup campaign and appointed former Sri Lankan skipper Pakir Ali, an AFC A Certified professional who played forVascoSCin 1980, at the helm of coaching affairs. FormerIndiainternational K Ajayan has been appointed as the skipper and he will be the key player for the Kerala side. The team got a morale boost when AIFF cleared their Ghanaian defender Charles Dzisah, who missed the Fed Cup campaign due to a contract dispute. India U-23 international Sabas Saleel is another player to watch out for the Kannur-based outfit.

TheHardTackle’s Players To Watch Out For:

James Singh (HAL SC)

K Ajayan (Chirag United Kerala)

TheHardTackle’s Prediction:

HAL SC 1-1 Chirag United Kerala

SALGAOCAR SC v DEMPO SC
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It’s Derby Time inGoa. It can’t get any bigger for the football crazyGoacrowd on the opening day of the new season. Defending Champions Salgaocar SC will host their bitter city-rivals Dempo Sports Club in the first Goan Derby of the season to be played at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Margao.

Fresh from their Federation Cup triumph, Karim Bencharifa’s side seems to have the momentum to go for all three points in this eagerly anticipated battle. Salgaocar have a settled first team and it is highly unlikely that Karim will tinker with the tried and tested 4-4-1-1 formation. In all probability it will be Karanjit Singh on goal, guarded by four defenders in the form of skipper Luciano Sabrosa, Biswajit Saha, Jashpal Parmar and Khelemba Meitei. Tomba Singh and Cajetan Fernandes are expected to be entrusted with managing the central midfield responsibility, while Francis Fernandes and Gilbert Oliveira will be the preferred winger combo for Bencharifa. In the attacking department Japanese recruit Ryuiji Sueoka will be playing just behind a lone striker in Edeh Chidi.

Chidi has been a revelation for Salgaocar this season


Sweeping changes have been made in the Dempo dressing room. Three of their four foreigners have left the club – two of them to rival Goan clubs. Ranti Martins, top scorer of the League last season is the only foreign player who has kept faith with the Blue Brigade. Dempo is expected to line-up on the field in a 4-4-2 formation. Subhashish Roy Chowdhury might get the nod to start under the goal-bar ahead of Laxmikanth Katimani. The Dempo back line picks itself, consisting of all Indian national team players. Mahesh, Rowilson, Samir and Debabrata will be the most likely pairing for the blue brigade.

The four-men midfield will have the likes of Climax Lawrence, Clifford Miranda, Peter Carvalho, Anthony Pereira. Talented Godwin Franco, who looks to be improving with every passing game, can be used as a second half substitute if the first choice central midfielders fail to deliver the desired goods. Micky Fernandes too can be used at the centre of the park at the centre of the park. Last season’s top scorer Ranty Martins will most probably pair-up with new signing Koko Sakibo in the attacking department. Besides, they also have the likes of Joaquim Abrahanches and Anil Kumar lined up on the substitute bench to make every opportunity count.

TheHardTackle’s Players To Watch Out For:

Edeh Chidi (SalgaocarSC)
Ranty Martins (DempoSC)

TheHardTackle’s Prediction:

Salgaocar SC 2-1 Dempo SC

PUNE FC v SHILLONG LAJONG FC

The Red Lizards, mentored by Derrick Pereira, will kick off the brand new season at home against newly promoted Shillong Lajong side. Pune FC has been mostly criticized for not challenging the big teams when it comes to crunch games. Their fans have been left lamenting a fizzled out challenge in past few years. Red Lizards have certainly bolstered their squad for posing a definite challenge in this year’s edition, bringing in the likes of former JCT player Baldeep Singh in the middle of the park, Tsewang Karma adding teeth to the attack and Shahinlal Meloly under the bar, who was in the news for his outrageous saves against Blackburn Rovers in the historic match at Balewadi Sports Complex. Shahinlal is expected to start tomorrow as India no.1 Subrata Pal is out for six months due to injury.

Recently, the Durand Cup saw Pune FC reach the semi finals, only to get knocked out by Prayag United in Delhi. The team looked confident as they eased past Air India and ONGC FC in the group stages. Coach Derrick Pereira would be hoping for a good positive start from his side as they lock horns against a very tricky Shillong Lajong Side.

Shillong Lajiong finished at the top of the table of the finals of the I-League second division to qualify for the premier division. After an absenteeism of a year, the torch bearers of north east football would be no pushovers this season. Coach Pradhyum Reddy has too strengthened his squad for a much tougher challenges in I league and all the additions would be put to test when his side faces the Pune FC challenge away from home.

Shillong Lajong had an impressive Federation Cup campaign. They reached the semi- finals of recently concluded Durand Cup as well where they were outdone by a rampaging Churchill Brothers side, but every pundit would attest the fact that Shillong Lajong did much more than what was expected. Shillong Lajong announced themselves on the big stage and put forth their prowess by comfortably beating United Sikkim and Indian Air Force in the group stages. Coach Pradhyum Reddy would be hoping that his new recruits click well as they could surprise many fans and start their campaign with an upset win at the Balewadi Sports Complex.

TheHardTackle’s Players To Watch Out For:

Mandjou Keita (Pune FC)
Boithang Haokip (Shillong Lajong)

TheHardTackle’s Prediction:

Pune FC 0-0 Shillong Lajong FC

MOHUN BAGAN V PAILAN ARROWS

The scenario has dramatically changed at Asia’s oldest club. The supporters have come out of a phase of desperation and despair and are now looking towards a bright future. All thanks to one – Subrata Bhattacharya. The Mohun Bagan legend has come back into the club after a gap of more than half a decade to start his 4th coaching stint for Green & Maroons. Bhattacharya is one of the most successful coaches in India football and the ideal man to steer Mohun Bagan’s ship into safer water. He will be joined by Chuni Goswami, a legendary player with a coaching degree from Germany, Prasanta Banerjee, one of the most educated coaches in India, Pradip Chowdhury, ex-India manager and ex-Mohun Bagan coach Satyajit Chatterjee in Technical Panel.

Mohun Bagan could effectively lineup with two foreigners when they open their campaign. Simon Storey has been released by the club while Jose Ramirez Barreto is out with an injury. It is still too early to predict which formation Bhattacharya will use. He has been known to field pragmatic formations which suit the squad at his disposal. He can pull out a surprise like playing N Pradeep at right-back (as he has been trying in practice sessions). It will be interesting to see how he organizes a Bagan defence which looked wafer thin during the Fed Cup.

Messiah ?

Pailan Arrows will be fielding a considerably new-look team from the one that impressed last season. They will also have a new coach in Sukhwinder Singh. The style of play has also changed, as Fed Cup showed. Instead of following the obsolete English long ball game, the Arrows have adopted a slick passing game. In Fed Cup, they defeated HAL and Mumbai FC with Jibon Singh scoring two goals. They lost the third match to eventual winners Salgaocar and missed out on qualification.

The young team has faced some logistical issues regarding practice in YBK turf in last few days, unsurprising when one remembers how incompetent IFA can be. Shilton D’Silva is out with an injury.

The Arrows inflicted a painful 5-4 defeat to Mohun Bagan last season and revenge will certainly be in the air.

TheHardTackle’s Players To Watch Out For:

Odafa Okalie (Mohun Bagan)
CS Sabeeth (Pailan Arrows)

TheHardTackle’s Prediction:

Mohun Bagan 1-0 Pailan Arrows

SPORTING CLUBE DE GOA v PRAYAG UNITED

In the second match of the day, the newly promoted Goan club take on the rechristened and rejuvenated Prayag United SC at the Fatorda stadium. From fighting relegation to qualifying for I-league’s premier division, Sporting Clube de Goa has come a long way in the last one year under their manager Ekendra Singh. Sporting have started their season on a high after beating Dempo Sports Club to win the GFA Super Cup. They showed unbelievable skill in GFA Super Cup against the likes of Salgaocar SC and Dempo SC but continuing that form in a longer version will be an all together different ball game.

The Flaming Oranje boasts of loads of potential in their midfield. Jovel Martins, Adil Khan along with Ogba Kalu could really torment their Kolkata based opponents in the first match. Other than their midfield, both defence and forward line will be a cause of concern for their manager. Their overreliance on Boubacar Keita at the back and on James Moga in the front might come back to haunt them, considering the form Prayag United seems to be in.

Prayag United would be rearing to go all out in the I-league after they missed a golden opportunity to retain the Durand Cup crown after losing out to Churchill Brothers on penalties. Under Sanjoy Sen, Prayag United have hit a purple patch this season and reached the semi finals of the Federation cup and later finals of the Durand Cup, but unfortunately they are yet to pick up silverware this season. No one has given them any chance to challenge for the I-league crown this season but after considering their performances against the major powerhouses of Indian football, it would not be an exaggeration and only fair if one considers them as the dark horses.

With the likes of Yakubu and Vincent, it would not be a tough challenge for Prayag against Sporting. At the back, Bello Razaq and Arnab Mondal are expected to keep a check on Moga. Their weakest link is their midfield but the presence of their new skipper Lalkamal, clubbed with the experience of Jayanta Sen, the side from Kolkata should not face any difficulty in notching up their first win of the season.

TheHardTackle’s Players To Watch Out For:

Boubacar Keita (Sporting Clube de Goa)
Yusif Yakubu (Prayag United SC)

TheHardTackle’s Prediction:

Sporting Clube de Goa 0-2 Prayag United SC

MUMBAI FC v AIR INDIA

I-league campaign for both these clubs begin with a Mumbai derby, as Air India are set to play hosts to Mumbai FC at the Cooperage stadium – a stadium shared by both these clubs – on Sunday evening. Air India FC, or The Pilots as they are fondly called by their supporters, would love to start their season on a winning note especially after narrowly missing out on a semi final berth in the recently concluded Durand Cup. Whereas, Mumbai FC who finished last season on 7th position in I-league would go into this fixture with their tails up as they got the better of the men from Air India on both the occasions in 2010-11.

Air India’s manager Santosh Kashyap is expected to field in a diamond formation and will rely chiefly on his striker duo of Soccor Velh and Nigerian born Ezeh Henry who have already shown some promising signs in the Durand Cup. Their midfield is expected to be marshalled by the 25 year old Allan Dias, who has formed a formidable partnership with Bijoy Basfore. Their latest recruit from across the town, Senegalese Lamine Tamba, might play as a defensive midfielder – the same position at which he used to play at Marseille during his youth career. Center back’s Uttam and Napoleon Singh will try their best to keep the shots coming from Mumbai FC strikers at bay, especially those coming from the experienced partnership of Abhishek Yadav and Noel Wilson.

Into their third year under former player and now manager Khalid jamil, Mumbai FC shocked quite a few football pundits with their performance last season in the I-league. This season of theirs was kicked off from the Federation Cup where they were grouped together with the mighty Salgaocar SC. Mumbai FC drew against the Goan giants due to their water tight defence but couldn’t progress any further in the tournament. On Sunday, again they will have to depend predominantly on their defence. Whether Khalid will field a five men backline, like he did against Salgoacar earlier this year, is hard to guess but since defence is their forte, expect a defensive style of play from the away side against Air India. The front line comprising of skipper Abhishek Yadav and Nigerian Ebi Sukore will depend on Noel Wilson and Darren Calderia to provide them with inch perfect passes from the center of the park in order to rattle the backline of Air India.

Kashyap and Jamil both have done a commendable job last year by preventing their respective clubs from getting relegated. Only time will tell whether both these managers will be able to better their last season performances or not but Sunday evening both will look send a strong message to the rest of the teams by making an early impact in the derby game.

TheHardTackle’s Players To Watch Out For:

Ezeh Henry (Air India FC)
Ishasnt Debnath (Mumbai FC)

TheHardTackle’s Prediction:

Air India FC 1-1 Mumbai FC

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  • rahul

    @Deb: Its surprsing to see that you havenot included the likes of Rocus Lamhare and Wadoo in the Salgacor midfield.I believe Lamhare is one of the brghtest talents in I-League and he even made it to the Indian tour of Carribean.What do u make of him??I am exicted to see the Churchill midfield and the likes of Zakeer and dika step and deliveer

  • Jose

    THT got only one prediction right out of the four games played today.

  • shankar

    air india vs mumbai fc match is being held in pune not cooperage….and ur article says both teams survived relegation battle…..was mumbai anytime involved in relegation struggle….dont write anything if mumbai was struggling then only top 4 teams were nt struggling the relegation battle…..u always underestimate mumbai fc i wonder why…..