The first round of I-League Division-2 witnessed some thrilling action as 26 teams from across the nation fought tooth and nail for the 6 final round spots. Poor management by the AIFF didn’t deter the teams as one witnessed spectacular action with the teams fighting till the end and the qualifiers being known only on the last match-day. Mohammedan Sporting, Mumbai Tigers, Bhawanipore Club, Langsning FC, Rangdajied United and Southern Samity make up the six qualified teams. Geographically, the qualified teams mirror the I-League with two teams from North-East, three from Kolkata and one from Mumbai and sums up the state of the beautiful game in the nation.
Winners of group A and Shillong powerhouses, Langsning FC put in a string of impressive performances to top group A leaving behind tough competitors in form of Rangdajied United, DSK Shivajians and Kenkre FC. L Darlong coached Langsning scored an impressive twenty goals in 8 matches, the highest by any team in division-2 and conceded only 4. Langsning began by a 7-0 thumping of Kohima Komets in the first match before they were held to a goalless draw by Kenkre. They continued by defeating local rivals Rangdajied United 1-0 where Joel Yinka Ayeni from the spot and then routed KGF academy 4-0. Langsning were held to 1-1 draw by Shivajians and concluded by defeated George Telegraph 3-1 where Joel scored a brace and Marlangki Suting another.
Former United Sikkim star Daniel Bedemi and Joel Yinka Ayeni have been stars for Langsning in the initial round and Langsning faithfuls will hope that foreign strikers can continue their good form. While Mohammedan Sporting and Mumbai Tigers are being tipped as favorites, Langsning are the dark-horses
Nicknamed the Black Panthers, perennial Division-2 favorites Mohammedan Sporting were the first team to qualify for the final stage. Coached by former Prayag coach, Sanjoy Sen, the team looks well balanced and settled with a host of players having the experience of playing in I-League before such as Jayanta Sen, Kinshuk Debnath, Jerry, Ashim Biswas and Dhanarajan. The team put in a great defensive show in the first round conceding only thrice as they won six of their eight matches while drawing the other two.
Mohammedan Sporting faced another favorites Royal Wahingdoh in the opening encounter and defeated the Shillong based side 2-1 to get there campaign to a fantastic start thanks to goals from Charles Dzisah and Alfred Jaryan. Ashim Biswas and Charles Dzisah scored in their 2-1 win over Josco in the second match before they were held to a goal-less draw by Aryan club. Sporting returned to form when they routed Shimla Youngs 5-0 thanks to goals from Alfred, Charles and Wee Hyo-Jun and then went on to record 1-0 wins over PIFA, Aizwal and Green Valley to clinch qualification. With their foreigners settled and in impressive form , the biggest challenge for Mohammedan Sporting will be to maintain their form and not to take their foot of the paddle.
Group C winners Southern Samity from kolkata emerged as winners after they defeated Mumbai Tigers 2-1 on the last day to clinch not just the qualification but also the top spot, denying in process Vasco a spot in the final six. Samity started with a 1-1 draw against Vasco in the first match with David Ngaihte scoring the equalizer just before the half time. Samity then recorded identical 1-0 wins over Eagles and South United with strikers M. Basant Singh and Suraj Mondal finding the net. Delhi born striker David Ngaihte was the star in the next two matches as he scored a brace in Samity’s 2-1 win over city rivals Kalinghat and scored another in 2-0 win over Hindustan where striker Suraj Mondal also scored.
The partnership upfront between David Ngaihte and Suraj Mondal has looked promising and would be one of the key strengths for Samity going forward. Nigerian striker Francis Onyeama who scored the winner over Mumbai Tigers is another key player along with goalkeeper Naseem Akhtar and defender Sovan Chakraborty who scored the opener against Mumbai Tigers. Two years ago Samity were one of the favorites to progress from the final round of the I-League division-2, but failed miserably and though this time their squad is relatively inexperienced, the experience of playing in Bangalore where the final round will be played is likely to give them the edge. The presence of two time I-League winner Subrata Bhattacharya on bench will carry an added advantage for Southern.
The second club form Shillong, Rangdajied United, qualified as runners-up from group A edging out DSK Shivajians narrowly for the second spot. Formely known as Ar-hima, the club gave a decent account of themselves last season when they had reached the final round. Rangdajied United won six of the eight matches losing the other two. The team started with a 3-2 loss against DSK Shivajians but bounced back with wins over George Telegraph and Kohima Komets. They lost 1-0 to eventual group winners Langsning 1-0 but then recorded three back to back wins to get back into contentions.
Rangdajied United went into the last match knowing that only a win would see them through and a brace from Babatunde sealed them the final round spot. Coached by Khlain Pyrkhat Syiemlieh, the team relies on the goal-scoring form of its foreign strikers - Ho Jun Shin who was signed from Mohammedan Sporting and Babatunde Badmus both of whom were among the goals in the initial round while midfielder Jeribe Kelechi is another important player in the team.
Led by Jose Ramirez Barreto, arguably the best foreign player to have played in Indian Football, Bhawanipore FC qualified as group B runners up on the last match-day when the held city rivals Mohammedan Sporting to a 1-1 draw to edge out a determined Royal Wahingdoh side. The club began their campaign with a 1-0 wins over Aryan club and Shimla Young with Barreto scoring in the latter. Barreto and Snehasish Dutta scored in 2-0 win over Green Valley followed by a 2-1 over Aizwal where Barreto and Nabin Hela scored.
Bhawanipore however lost 3-0 to Royal Wahingdoh but held their nerves in the end to qualify thanks to impressive performances from Barreto who scored in almost every match and Afghan central midfielder Mohammad Mashriqi who chipped in with important goals as well. Bhawanipore have an impressive ensemble of foreign players in form of Richard Gariseb, Hudson Lima, Mohammad Mashriqi and Barreto and but the inexperience of playing at such a level before can be a deterrent.The Indian players in the team - Nabin Hela, Dipendu Duari and others will alos have to raise their performances. A lot will depend on Barreto and given that the teams are going to mark him, Bhawanipore need to think of a plan B.
Mumbai Tigers, formed as Dodsal FC have well and truly made a big impact in Indian Football. The club reached the final of Durand Cup and then won the Nadkarni Cup and are favorites to qualify for the I-League. Under the guidance of experienced Bimal Ghosh, Mumbai Tigers is led by former Pune FC midfielder Paresh Shivalkar. The team was slow to start off the blocks as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Eagles FC in the first game with Demba Dikhate scoring the equalizer and then were trailing 1-0 when N.P.Pradeep and Demba Dikhate scored in the last 5 minutes to give the team their first win . Tigers found form after this win as they defeated Luangmual FC 4-2 before eking out a 1-0 win over Vasco with Mohammed Rafi scoring the important goal.
It was a smooth sailing for the team henceforth with Mohammed Rafi a goal in each of the last five games with the only glitch being the loss to Southern Samity in the last game.A unique quality of the team is that the team played with only foreigner – striker Demba Dikhate unlike the other teams who heavily rely on their foreign players. Expereinced players like N.P.Pradeep, Mohammed Rafi and Paresh Shivalkar have led from the front while younger players like Loukik Jadhav, Rabindra Ghosh, Zeeshan Rahman, Sunil Kumar and Bikash Jairu have also played their part to perfection. With the players raring to go and an almost injury fit squad available, Mumbai Tigers are the favorites to qualify for the I-League next season.