IFA Shield, the second oldest Cup competition in India kicks off in early March as teams from India as well as outside the country battle the lift the famous Shield trophy. The competition is somewhat smaller this year, with only eight teams participating. However, IFA Shield has stayed true to its tradition of involvement of foreign teams as the 2013 edition contains clubs from Costa Rica and Bangladesh. Eight teams have been divided into two groups; matches in one group will take place in Siliguri while the other group will be held in Kolkata and Kalyani.

Siliguri Phase

East Bengal is well placed to win multiple titles this season. The current Federation Cup winners are in the title hunt for I-League, leading the table in Kolkata Premier League but they need to use their squad judiciously to defend their IFA Shield title. IFA ShieldThe Red & Golds are participating in AFC Cup at the same period and have a match on 13th March, that too away in Vietnam. It is likely that some of the fringe players will get more time in IFA Shield with East Bengal focusing their full strength in AFC Cup. A recent injury to Arnab Mandal may keep him out of both tournaments though rest of the East Bengal team in fit and raring to go. East Bengal last defended an IFA Shield title successfully in 2002 and that may give an additional incentive to Trevor James Morgan to inspire his team to another Shield title. Siliguri has always boasted of a strong East Bengal supporter base so technically it will be a home ground for them.

Expect big spenders Prayag United to take this tournament very, very seriously. The Purple Brigade has not performed to their fullest potential despite having a star studded squad. They are out of the running for the I-League title and are precariously placed in Kolkata Football League as well. IFA Shield can very well be the only remaining opportunity for Prayag to win some silverware this season. Star midfielder Carlos Hernandez is back and he immediately had an impact in KFL but there are still some concerns about his discipline. Ranty Martins has been one of the few consistent performers for Prayag and he would be looking to continue his form to win a title which has still eluded him in India. Unlike East Bengal, Prayag United don’t have AFC Cup to worry about so they will be able to field a full strength team in IFA Shield.

Clubs from Bangladesh have participated multiple times in past with Dhaka Mohammedan finishing as runner-up in 1995 after losing to East Bengal in tie-breaker. This edition sees Bangladesh Premier League side Muktijoddha Sangsad Krira Chakra participate in IFA Shield. Muktijoddha may have failed to win Bangladesh Premier League so far but they have come mighty close to be crowned champions in recent past. They finished second in the league in 2012 and 2011, losing the title by just a single point; they also finished third in 2007. Their performance in current edition of BPL has been disappointing though. They have failed to replicate their form from last season and went through a winless streak for almost one and half month in 2013. They have won just three matches out of thirteen and lie at sixth position, thirteen points behind league leaders. A good performance in IFA Shield may salvage something from Muktijoddha’s season since they have also failed in Bangladesh Federation Cup. With the country in internal turmoil, a win in IFA Shield can bring smiles to the faces of their fans. With players like Tyson Silva, Yusuf, Benjamin Eleta and Emmanuel Dammy in the team Muktijoddhya is likely to prove a tough cookie.

I-League season began in a spectacular fashion for Pailan Arrows but the youngsters have somewhat showed down after that start. The drop in Pailan Arrows’ form has been extremely sharp as they have managed to win just twice since December. This disastrous bad patch has included five consecutive losses in I-League. The Arthur Papas coached side is not carrying good form to IFA Shield, having lost their last two encounters before I-League went into a break. The loss of Prathamesh Maulingkar has further weakened their defence and resulted in Arrows keeping just one clean sheet in past three months. They have also struggled to score goals with Holicharan Narzary’s strong form in start of I-League deserting him. Alwyn George continues to perform well but he is yet to reach the level of consistency required in top division. IFA Shield 2013 will be nothing more than a good exposure for Arrows youngsters and they are unlikely to challenge for the title.

Final Verdict: East Bengal and Prayag United to qualify as group winners and runner-up respectively.

Note: Muktijoddha Sangsad Krira Chakra won’t be playing and may be replaced by a team whose name is not officially announced yet