The 7th installment of the I-League has had quite a start. With the third round of games finishing on Sunday, the first few games have given Indian football fans minimal hints of how the league will pan out for the remainder of the season. Favorites Dempo and Churchill have failed to win a single game so far, while new boys Bengaluru FC lead the table with 7 points from the 3 games. There have been quite a few surprising results so far, with Shillong Lajong trouncing Dempo 3-0 in the opening day, Rangdajied coming back from two goals down to hold Papas’s side to a 2-2 draw on Friday, and many more. However, the most consistent performers during the three rounds have been the perennially underrated Mumbai FC. Khalid Jamil’s side have continued to play their home games at Pune’s Balewadi Stadium, without the comfort of any fans, as the Cooperage Stadium renovation, and the subsequent dispute involving WIFA, continues to drag on. On the other hand, the club hasn’t been one of the most active participants in the transfer market over the summer. These factors have led many to believe that a relegation dogfight would await the club in the coming few months. However, if early indications are anything to go by, Mumbai FC are set to prove their doubters wrong for another season, and, with the likes of Sandjar Ahmadi in the team now, challenge the big boys in the top flight.
The Mumbai FC side went to Goa last Saturday to take on defending champions Churchill, after having taken a point each from Sporting Clube and Dempo SC in their first two ‘home’ games. With Afghan national hero Sandjar Ahmadi making his debut for Mumbai FC, Khalid Jamil’s men started the brighter of the two sides. However, as the minutes ticked by, the defending champions started settling into the game, and created a few chances. With only a few minutes to go until halftime, Churchill’s Bineesh Balan was brought down inside the penalty area by Valeriano Rebello. However, the resultant spot-kick turned out to be the defining moment of the game as Mumbai custodian Kunal Sawant correctly guessed the direction of the penalty to save Henry Antouchet’s shot, and keep the scoreline at 0-0. Egged on by the save, Mumbai FC attacked with renewed vigour. After the break, the brilliant Zohib Amiri picked up teammate Orok Essien, who made an excellent finish to give the visitors the lead. After the goal, Jamil’s side sat back and allowed Churchill to have more of the ball. With the Mumbai defence, veteran centre-back Anwar Ali in particular, in top form, the hosts were given very few opportunities to strike back. The game continued with Churchill failing to take any significant advantage of their superiority in possession. With three minutes left, seasoned campaigner Climax Lawrence sealed the game for Mumbai FC, with a calculated finish past the Churchill custodian.
The win now puts Jamil’s men in fourth place from three games. Although it is too early to expect a rosy season ahead for Mumbai FC, there is no doubt about the fact that this side is good enough to give any top club in the country a run for its money. The signing of Sandjar Ahmadi will be crucial, with the Afghan known for his knack of scoring goals. The forward had a brilliant debut, and will be one of the players to watch out for this season. On the other hand, Ahmadi’s compatriot Zohib Amiri will have one of the most important roles to play for the club this season. The full-back was in inspirational form against Churchill, and has the task of leading his team from the back.
The veteran India duo of Climax Lawrence and Anwar Ali were excellent against the defending champions, and these two signings may turn out to be a masterclass, come the end of the season. Khalid Jamil has been able to extract the maximum from the highly talented Ashutosh Mehta, while Nicholas Rodrigues, who has already spent three years at the club, has already shown his class with the side, and these two will be important in the club’s endeavors this season. Moreover, Khalid Jamil’s brilliant man management skills and tactical awareness will ensure that the club doesn’t go in the wrong direction this term. In the past few seasons, Mumbai FC have consistently proved doubters wrong by managing to avoid the drop. From what has been seen in the first three games, fans of the Mumbai-based club can expect bigger things from the side this season.
Bengaluru FC made their way to the top of the table after a 1-0 victory over United SC on Sunday. The ‘men of steel’ went ahead courtesy of a John Johnson header early in the first half, and held on for the rest of the game to earn a deserved 1-0 victory. United SC, the table-toppers until the previous round, were made to pay for a few missed chances, as star forward Ranty Martins struggled to get past the Bengaluru defence. United, who were missing midfield schemer Lalkamal Bhowmick, failed to stamp their mark at the centre of the field, and an astute Bengaluru defence succeeded in frustrating the visitors. The win marks a brilliant start for Bengaluru FC, who will now be high in confidence ahead of their next game against Mohammedan Sporting on 10th.
In Shillong, Sporting Clube de Goa pulled off a mild upset, as they registered a 1-0 victory over the more-fancied Shillong Lajong FC. In a slow-paced game, neither of the sides managed to clearly impose their authority. As Lajong seemed to settle down, the Goan club struck a vital blow to the hosts, with Ogba Kalu heading in a corner against the run of play. Lajong were further pegged back by an injury to midfielder Taisuke Matsugae, which forced Thangboi Singto to play with three strikers up front, with new signing Subash Singh entering the frame. Lajong upped their tempo in the second half, and Singto threw in Seikhohao Tuboi in search of an equalizer. However, Clube held firm at the back, and offered minimal chances to the hosts’ frontmen. The game ended with the scoreline at 0-1, with neither side displaying any creative brand of football. One of the positives from the game for the hosts would be the form of 24-year old midfielder Boithang Haokip, who has had a brilliant start to the season, and also hit the woodwork against Oscar Bruzon’s side.
A day before the Lajong-Clube game, the reds’ fierce local rivals Rangdajied United made a few jaws drop with an amazing comeback against former I-League champions Dempo SC. Despite a Friday afternoon kickoff, the blues were egged on by a near capacity crowd at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Mawkasiang, in their I-League home debut. Dempo, however, started the better side, and went ahead courtesy of a Beto freekick in the 6th minute. The Goan side extended their lead in the 1st half injury time through a Billy Mehmet spot-kick, after the striker was brought down by Rangdajied full-back Thomas Saikhom. In the second half, the tide started swinging in Rangdajied’s favour, after Lalnunpuia, a summer signing from Royal Wahingdoh, struck a few minutes after the breather. With Rangdajied throwing everything at Dempo, forward Sandesh Gadkari put the goal into the back of the net with less than quarter of an hour left, to send the home crowd into pandemonium. The hosts held on for a famous result.
Salgaocar FC carried on their fine form from the first round win against Churchill to annihilate Mohammedan Sporting by three goals to nil. Playing at the Duler Stadium in Goa, the hosts went ahead courtesy of a Daryl Duffy goal in the first half. With the newly signed striker in fine form, Salgaocar continued its barrage of attacks in the second half. Claude Gnakpa and Augustin Fernandes struck once each for the hosts after the break, as they romped to a 3-0 victory. The win means Salgaocar have a 100 percent record from their two games, and will hope to extend their winning streak when they next face Dempo on 9th.