First seven rounds of the 2013-14 I-League season have thrown quite a few surprises, not least defending champions Churchill Brothers’ failure to pick up a single win so far. On the other hand, Salgaocar, Bengaluru FC and Pune FC are the sides currently sitting at the top of the table, with former champions Dempo SC slumping lower in the table. Many sides have underwhelmed, including North Eastern club Shillong Lajong FC, whose poor home performances must be giving head coach Thangboi Singto some sleepless nights.
At start of the season, Shillong Lajong were touted for big things in the I-League, after having signed some top footballers during the summer. Despite huffing and puffing their way to top-flight survival during the last two campaigns, the Reds finally looked to have got together a team good enough to challenge the big boys. The North Eastern outfit started promisingly, dismantling pre-season favorites Dempo in Goa by a margin of 3-0 in the opening game. However, as things panned out in the six games following the encounter at Duler Stadium, Lajong have been worryingly woeful at home, dropping 12 points in 5 games. The lowest point came in a 4-0 defeat to AFC Cup semi-finalists East Bengal FC, when the hosts were left completely rattled by a James Moga-led blitzkrieg.
The Reds failed to score a single goal in their first three home games, and followed up these drab performances with a 1-1 draw against United SC in Mawkasiang. After narrowly winning an away encounter against Mumbai FC by a scoreline of 3-2, Lajong were in upbeat mood ahead of their home clash against struggling defending champions Churchill Brothers. Playing in front of 10,000 strong fans on Monday, the hosts however, were slow off the blocks, and conceded a goal as early as the sixth minute, after Churchill’s Bineesh Balan combined with Balwant Singh to give the visitors the lead. The goal brought the hosts back to life, and their persistent attacking bore fruits, as forward Subash Singh was brought down inside the box after 21 minutes. Milan Singh made no mistake in converting the resultant spot-kick, to level up the scores. 13 minutes later, summer signing Uilliams Bomfin Souza Silva sent the home crowd into pandemonium, after slotting home from inside the box. The hosts then slowed things down, and Churchill failed to penetrate Lajong’s defensive fortress for quite some time. With the game heading for a 2-1 Lajong win, the hosts conceded a free-kick just outside the box in the last few minutes. Hugo Machado then stepped up to put the ball into the back of the net from his direct free-kick, thus silencing the home fans. The Reds failed to create any further trouble for the visitors, and the game ended with both sides sharing the spoils.
The draw against Churchill gives Lajong only their third point from five home games. Despite winning two of the away games they have played so far, Lajong have been poor at home. During the last two seasons, it was the Reds’ home form which compensated for their poor record on the road. This season so far, things looked a bit different. Lajong have adopted a different approach from their usually fast-paced game. The exuberance is somewhat lacking, and the North Eastern outfit look to have taken up a slower form of game this season. Coach Thangboi Singto has put his focus on improving his defence, and the measured approach has not produced the best results so far. During the last few seasons, the reds were guilty of conceding many soft goals due to their relatively faster approach, and Singto has sought to prevent such occurrences this season.
With new players coming into the side, any top side would have taken time to get some decent results consistently, and Lajong are no different. Singto is yet to decide his best formation, as has been seen from the consistent tinkering in the first seven games, and the coach should be given some more time to help him select his best possible combination of players in his quest to be more solid at the back, while not being toothless up front. Although the home games haven’t produced the best of results so far, there is no reason for Lajong to hit the panic button yet. The presence of hard-working defenders like Robin Gurung and Minchol Son should bode well for the reds as they try and adjust to Singto’s new system. Up front, the likes of Taisuke Matsugae will ensure that there will be no lack of creativity despite shifting from their usual fast-paced game, which relied more on wide players. All Singto needs is a string of positive results, and the Reds can kick on from there.
Pune FC narrowly defeated Rangdajied United by a goal to nil at the Balewadi Sports Complex on Sunday, in what was the fifth loss in the league for Santosh Kashyap’s side. The newly-promoted side, however, produced a much improved display against the Red Lizards, and should be confident of doing well in their crucial home encounter against Salgaocar on the 5th of next month.
Sporting Clube were beaten 3-1 at home by Mohammedan Sporting, with the Black Panthers finally gelling well together as a team. Coach Masood Aziz will be a much relieved man after his side produced one of their best displays of the season. Mohammedan next visit Shillong Lajong on Saturday, and the Kolkata-based side will be looking to get a positive result in a stadium where they scored their first points of the season.
Salgaocar managed to earn all the three points from their clash against United SC in Kolkata, after goals from Augustin Fernandes and Milagres Gonsalves. The win puts Salgaocar at the top of the table with 13 points from 6 games, having played a game more than Pune FC, who have the same number of points. The Goans have reaped the maximum from the brilliant form of striker Darryl Duffy, and are looking like one of the stronger candidates for the I-League title.
Mohun Bagan beat Mumbai FC by a solitary goal in an important game at the Balewadi on Saturday. The Mariners took the lead in the 53rd minute, courtesy of substitute Manish Bhargav, and held on to it, to inflict Mumbai their third straight home loss. The win lifts Bagan to 7th in the standings, while Mumbai FC slip to 10th.
In one of the biggest games of the weekend, Bengaluru FC were handed their first ever loss on a football pitch, after East Bengal beat them by a couple of goals on a rain battered pitch at Kalyani Stadium on Saturday. Playing in their first away game, the JSW-owned side went behind early in the second half after former red-and-gold Robin Singh headed in a Lalrindika Ralte corner. The visitors then dominated for much of the second half, as they went in search of an equalizer. The hosts, however, held on to their lead, and in the final minute of stoppage time, doubled their lead after forward James Moga finished off a swift counter-attack. The loss pegs Bengaluru FC back to third place, although they have the same number of points as Salgaocar and Pune FC. East Bengal, on the other hand, jumps to 9th with 6 points from 3 games.