During the start of this season, there was a buzz surrounding the I-league among Indian football enthusiasts and followers. For the first time since the inception of the Premier league (National football league or I-League), there were two teams from the north east plying their trade among the usual suspects from Goa and Kolkata. Shillong Lajong FC avoided the drop last season and with a stronger squad was raring to go under new administration. Adding to the Meghalaya giants, we had Bhaichung Bhutia’s baby United Sikkim FC making the cut from ONGC I-League 2, though controversially.
A lot was expected from both these sides as they geared for the big challenge. Both clubs secured the services some influential players. But the challenge put forth by the north eastern sides is eventually fading out as the I-League crosses the half way mark. Let us look at the League positions of both the sides – Shillong Lajong is placed at twelfth position and United Sikkim is thirteenth in the league.
Shillong Lajong hasn’t won in their last five games. Losing three and drawing the other two. Desmond Bulpin’s side are struggling big time. Apart from the big North Korean defender Minchol Son, their defence is shambolic. Lajong’s defence has let in twelve goals in their last four games, Churchill Brothers hitting the net half a dozen times in the last round, without receiving a reply from the Meghalaya side. Former India International Rennedy Singh has lost his sheen in the middle of the park and has failed to make a mark. Striker trio of Sushil Singh, Friday and Ebi Sukore have failed to impress the fans and are guilty of muffing easy chances falling in their way. Bulpin’s side has only managed to win two of their seven home games this season, which is one of the prime reasons why Shillong’s season is derailing.
United Sikkim FC, aka The Snow Lions are hovering in the relegation zone as the Round 14 concludes. The Gangtok side has been utterly disappointing from the start of the season, so much so that the team has only managed to hoard a single triumph in their thirteen games. Anwar Ali led defence has been listless at the back for the Bhutia side as they continue to leak in goals. Inexperience of Sandesh Jhingan and Munmun Lagun is showing at the back, especially when up against quality sides. United Sikkim hasn’t won since the opening day triumph against Salgaocar. Striking department is facing a drought with Nigerian striker Nuruddin usually not getting the required support from Tenzin and Tudu.
A common problem that has plagued sides from North East is their woeful away form. They do well at home thanks to the dual factor of a passionate home support as well as altitude factor but the obvious gaps in technique of the players becomes all too apparent on their travels. Both Lajong and United Sikkim contain players who have excellent fitness and pace but they don’t have enough players with creativity or game changing ability. The selection of foreigners also leaves a lot to be desired. This season, Baichung Bhutia had given bulk of the responsibility of constructing the team to De Ridder, United Sikkim’s ex-coach. But the Belgian has clearly failed in his task which was evident when he was removed from coaching seat in middle of the season. Lajong and United Sikkim’s form is a sharp contrast to the recent upswing of ONGC and Mumbai FC, two teams which were expected to struggle this season and unless the North Eastern sides improve their level of play one or both of them can drop back to division two.
Chidi Edeh continued with his excellent run of form for the Lal-Holud brigade as he scored his first hattrick at Mapusa on Saturday. East Bengal demolished Salgaocar in their own background, with Robin Singh also getting a rare goal for the Kolkata side. East Bengal now sit third in the table, one point behind the joint table leaders Churchill Brothers and Pune FC. Meanwhile Salgaocar, could not live up to the expectations of the large crowd at Duler Stadium and slipped to eleventh in the league once again. This was after a confidence boosting win in the previous round for the Goan Greens.
Another afternoon kickoff at the Ambedkar Stadium saw ONGC lock horns against deflated Pailan Arrows. ONGC came up with trumps in another home match as the Delhi side rallied to clinch all three comfortable points with a clean sheet. Eric Brown was given marching orders for a two footed lunge, but the Liberian had already done the damage. ONGC now climb further up the table at eighth in the league with Arrows registering their fourth consecutive loss. Coach Arthur Papas looked very disappointed with his team’s performance at Ambedkar stadium and would be hoping that boys hit the lost form quickly.
The match of the round saw Dempo travel to Kolkata at a jam packed Kalyani Stadium, a rarity for Prayag United matches. The match saw both the sides have moments to score, but somehow Carlos Hernandez proved his worth when the Costa Rican Midfielder swirled a free kick hitting the side netting in the dying moments of the match to clinch all three points. Eelco’s side were desperate for points in this match and now coach would be hoping that is teams tightens the screws. Dempo slip to fourth in the table as the title race heats up between four teams. This is Colaco’s teams’ second loss in five games.
The evening kick off at Balewadi saw Air India host Sporting Club. The Pilots were in command for most of the match and were also leading courtesy an Elijah Junior strike before the lemon break. But the Mumbai side let two points slip from their hands as Victorino Fernandes came off the bench to make them pay late in the injury time. It finished 1-1 after his thundering shot beat the Air India custodian. Air India is now placed at ninth in the table, while Sporting Goa hovering just above the relegation zone.