The second edition of the tournament, which is regarded as a feeder for top I-League clubs in terms of grooming and nurturing young talents of Indian football, the U-20 I-League, is all set kick-off on April 17, 2012. The two phase round-robin league will be played at three different venues – Goa, Mumbai and Kalyani. The 14 participating teams are divided into three groups as per their geographic location. Matches of Group A, which will feature teams from Eastern part of India, will be played at Kalyani, West Bengal, while Group-B, consisting of South-Western teams is scheduled to unfold at Mumbai. The matches of the third and last group, Group-C, will be played at Goa. Defending Champions and the sole representative from Northern India, JCT FC, will not get a chance to showcase in this annual event and they will be sorely missed.
Group-A (Kalyani): East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Prayag United, Shillong Lajong
The traditional powerhouses of Indian football, Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan will get another opportunity to renew their historic rivalry in Under-20 level. They will be joined by city rivals Prayag United and the pride of North-East India, Lajong FC, to fight it out for securing a place in the final phase. East Bengal, last season’s runner-ups behind JCT FC, had comfortably secured their place in the final round from Eastern zone last time around and the Red-&-Gold colts will look to go one place better this time around.
Under the able guidance of Tarun Dey, the Laal-Holud brigade features a number of highly promising youngsters who will be keen to showcase their talent and gradually drift in to the senior squad. Goalkeeper Pradip Nath, his deputy Krishnendu Karmakar, defending combo of Milan Dhar and Sandip Barma, midfield duo of Nabeen Hela and Anirban Chatterjee, and the two-pronged attack featuring Len Doungel – who has already made his senior team debut earlier this season – and Imran Khan are an asset to any team. Keep a close tab on Nabeen Hela and Len Doungel – they are touted as the next big thing in Indian football.
The Mariners, led by Manish Bharghav, whom Subrata Bhattachrya considers as a top talent in Indian football, will try their best to restrict their arch-rivals from securing a place in final round for two years in succession. Their squad is equally talented and consists of a number of players from their home-grown SAIL Football Academy. They have a deadly strike pair in Joseph Lalunpuia and Anubrata Maity who can prove to be lethal to any defense. Their defense is equally robust, consisting of Ranjan Das, S.K. Mustafa Ali, Romesh Singh and Gopal Kundu. Winger Sonu Kumar is another exciting prospect for Bagan. However central midfield looks a bit weak comparatively, but the likes of Sanjay Haldar and Zonuntluanga have it in them to make it big.
Prayag United, the new big spenders of Indian football, have given a lot of emphasis to youth development in last couple of years and the Kolkata U-19 league runner-ups are capable to stage big-scale upsets. Goalkeeper Parimal Burman and striker Jagannath Oraon are a couple of players to watch out for in the Prayag stable. North-East dynamite, Lajong FC, too boasts of a number of supremely talented youngsters who are capable of turning the table on their more-illustrious West Bengal counterparts. Lajong’s manager Seibor Sana reckons that skipper Henry Marboh and midfielder Zodingliana will be able to weave magic and secure them a place in the final round.
Probable Group-A Finishing Standings:
1. East Bengal
2. Mohun Bagan
3. Shillong Lajong
4. Prayag United
Group B (Mumbai): Air India, Chirag United Kerala, HAL SC, Mumbai FC, Pune FC
On paper Pune FC, who have arguably the best academy structure in India, are the favorites to go through to the next phase, however an upset can not be ruled out – especially by Chirag United Kerala or Mumbai FC. Last year Mumbai FC stunned the Red Lizards by finishing on top in the South-Western region and they will be keen to repeat that feat this time as well. Defender Kazim Siddique, midfielder Rolfred Coutinho along with striker Tushar Pujari are the players Mumbai FC will trust to see them through. Besides they also have the likes of Deeraj Jayant and Jayesh Rane, who have attracted rave reviews from youth coaches all over the country.
Gift Raikhan, the Pune FC academy coach, reckons that the Red Lizards have learned their lessons from last season’s misadventure and they will showcase a superior performance this time around.
Raikhan has immense confidence in his players and insisted that midfielder David Lalbiakzara, Nikhil Kadam, F. Lalrempuia and striker William Lalnunfela etal have it in them to make it big this time around. Air India had started their academy in 2007 under the guidance of experienced coach Bimal Ghosh. The then Aviation minister Praful Patel has been one of the patronages in Air India’s youth development program. They have produced quite a few talented prospects from their academy over the course of last four years and have been participating in various international tournaments, including U-15 Manchester United Premier Cup in recent past. They do have a set team which can pull off a few surprises in Group-B.
Kerala has a history of producing talented youngsters and Chirag United can match Mumbai FC and Pune FC in terms of raw talent. However, lack of proper facilities and a full time coach might bring about their downfall in this tournament and the club should spend more in developing their infrastructure in grooming promising players to be regarded as a force to reckon with in near future. The story is no different for Bangalore based side HAL SC and the attitude of their management needs to change in order to elevate their status as a talent grooming center.
Probable Group-B Finishing Standings:
1. Pune FC
2. Mumbai FC
3. Air India
4. Chirag United Kerala
5. HAL SC
Group-C (Goa): Dempo SC, Salgaocar SC, Churchill Brothers, Sporting Clube de Goa
Goa has gradually overtaken West Bengal as the talent hub of Indian football thanks to these four bigwigs – Dempo, Salgaocar, Churchill and Sporting. All these four teams are known for their robust youth programs and their approach of nurturing budding talents. Dempo’s collaboration with FC Midtjylland has been one of the highlight of Indian football in last couple of years, while Salgaocar have player exchange program with world famous Manchester United Soccer Schools. Dempo have the likes of Terence Fernandes, Jorex Fernandes, Romeo, Jeovito Fernandes and Aiken Dias in their U-20 roaster while for Salgaocar, Clifton Fernandes and Richard Costa are two players to look forward to among the Goan Greens.
If one thinks that Dempo and Salgaocar are the best in business in Goa in terms of quality of youngsters, it’s time to think again. Sporting Clube de Goa, the lesser-known Flaming Oranje are the current holders of Goa U-20 League. Their squad mainly contains players from quality accademies like Sesa Velha Goa Velha. They lifted the Goa U-20 crown, remaining undefeated in the entire tournament organized by GFA. In the semi final, they outclassed Salgaocar by 2-0 margin before getting the better of Dempo in a nail-biting final clash. Mackroy Peixoto, who impressed one and all with his whole-hearted display in I-League div-I will be the main source of hope for Sporting along with talented midfielder Pritam Ningthougam and Valerio Rodrigues.
Churchill too reached the last-four stage in Goa U-20 League, but were humbled by arch-rival Dempo SC in the semi final. Mariano Fernandes and Nicholas Fernandes are the star player for Churchill Brothers U-20 team.
Probable Group-C Finishing Standings:
1. Dempo SC
2. Sporting Clube de Goa
3. Salgaocar SC
4. Churchill Brothers