IFA Shield 2013’s biggest crowd puller should be Deportivo Saprissa, the most successful Costa Rican club of all time. Saprissa has been placed in the Kolkata-Kalyani group and will have their strongest opponent in Mohun Bagan, back after a one year hiatus from the tournament. The Green & Maroons were the first Indian club to win IFA Shield in 1911 and the 2013 edition may be their last chance to win a trophy this season
Deportivo Saprissa is undoubtedly the star attraction of this edition of IFA Shield. Nicknamed “Purple Monsters” the Costa Rican club has won 29 domestic titles, a national record as well as three CONCACAF Champions Cup titles. Saprissa qualified for 2005 Club World Cup as North American champions but were knocked out in semi-final after 3-0 loss against Liverpool. However, they scored 2 goals in last 5 minutes to clinch the third spot, by beating Asian champions Al-Ittihad 3-2. Past two years have been bit of a dry spell for Saprissa, as they have failed to win the league title since 2010 Clausura. Deportivo Saprissa will not be bringing their first team for IFA Shield but will instead rely on their reserves and academy graduates. To cover up for lack of experience in the squad they are also reportedly brining back two of their most distinguished veteran players – 34 year old Alonso “El Mariachi” Solís who played for Saprissa for 14 years and 38 year old Walter Centeno, who played for Saprissa for 17 years and represented Costa Rica 135 times in International football (the latter dropped out because of visa issues). The team from Costa Rica needs to be weary of hot and humid weather in Kolkata as well as the artificial turf in Salt Lake stadium which has often caused problems to visiting teams. The team though starts as one of the pre-tournament favorites.
Mohun Bagan may have celebrated the 100th anniversary of their historic IFA Shield triumph last year but their recent record in Shield and in Indian football, in general, has been dismal. The Green & Maroons have not won Shield since 2003 and didn’t even participate last season. They will take IFA Shield very seriously this year as it is one of the few remaining opportunities for the club to break their barren run of major silverware. Karim Bencherifa will be hoping that the chemistry between his defenders and star strikers Odafa-Tolgay improves during IFA Shield as Mohun Bagan look to escape relegation from I-League. Odafa Okolie has once again been the sole consistent performer in a team which often lacks creative spark upfront. The Nigerian has a good record in IFA Shield as well, scoring in the final in 2009 to help Churchill Brothers win the title. His Australian partner Tolgay Ozbey is yet to discover his best touch but has shown encouraging signs of getting back to scoring ways.
Since its entry to I-League, Pune FC has become one of the most consistent sides in Indian top flight. The Red Lizards have turned Balewadi as one of the most difficult away trips in the country and have routinely picked up praiseworthy away results. Pune FC was in title contention for a number of rounds in this season’s I-League but they seem to have lost their steam after that. However, they look all set for another top-5 finish in I-League, top-3 if things go right. One glaring absence from Pune FC’s profile till now has been a good performance in Cup competitions. It is quite baffling how such a consistent team in the league has tripped time and again in Cups. They were one of the favourites and biggest names in this season’s Durand Cup but made a shocking early exit. Pune FC will be weakened after losing three of their important players – Arata, Gurjinder and Jeje to the National team but IFA Shield will also be a good platform for their new signing Boima Karpeh to showcase his talent as the climax of the I-League approaches.
Baichung Bhutia’s United Sikkim FC was a last minute entrant to IFA Shield after Shillong Lajong FC and Mumbai FC dropped out due to injuries and lack of squad strength. The Snow Lions have struggled in I-League in their maiden season and are ear-marked as one of the candidates for relegation. Despite changing their coach United Sikkim’s performance has not improved and they have embarked on a winless streak which stretched from 6th October, 2012. This streak has also seen some heavy losses like a 10-1 reverse against Prayag United and a 7-0 thrashing from Dempo. Only silver lining for United Sikkim will be their relatively decent record against two of the Indian clubs in their group. United drew 2-2 in the away match against Pune FC though they did lose their home leg narrowly. United Sikkim also earned a creditable goal-less draw against Mohun Bagan in Kolkata. The Snow Lions are unlikely to make waves in IFA Shield 2013 and are likely to use this tournament as a platform to test out any tactical changes required to improve their form in I-League.
Final Verdict: Deportivo Saprissa and Mohun Bagan favorites to qualify as group winners and runners-up respectively.