The Federation Cup kicks off in Kerala on Tuesday, with 16 teams dreaming of lifting the title in a little less than a couple of weeks’ time in Kochi. In recent years, Goan clubs haven’t had much of an impressive record in this tournament, with Salgaocar being the only team to lift this title in the last eight years.
It was a little less than a decade ago that Dempo SC had last won this coveted trophy, but since then, they have pretty much underachieved in the Indian version of the FA Cup, although they only narrowly missed out on the title last season after being beaten by East Bengal in extra time of the final. While, Dempo have been dominant in the I-League during these years, the club will definitely be itching to break their hoodoo in the Federation Cup by lifting the title in Kochi later this month.
The Arthur Papas-coached side has been given a favorable draw this time, being grouped alongside Mohammedan Sporting and second division sides Bhawanipore and United Sikkim. However, as Dempo have learnt in the past, most famously in 2009/10 when they were knocked out in the group stages despite being grouped with three unfancied teams, underestimating the opposition could have severe consequences on their chances of winning the title. Moreover, Mohammedan themselves will be looking to reclaim the title they last won in 1984-85, while Bhawanipore will be in confident mood going into the tournament on the back of their Bordoloi Trophy title win. United Sikkim, on the other hand, have played at this level before, and will definitely be no pushovers. The Group D games will be played at the MDS Complex in Manjeri.
The second-division outfit from Kolkata recently lifted the prestigious Bordoloi Trophy in Guwahati, beating fellow second-tier side Aizawl FC by a solitary goal in the final. Coming into the tournament high in confidence, Bhawanipore could prove to be a thorn in the path for semi-final aspirants Dempo and Mohammedan Sporting. The club missed out on an I-League place on the final day of last season when Rangdajied United pipped them to the spot after beating Mohammedan Sporting, but Jose Ramirez Barreto and co. will be desperate to prove their credentials of playing in the I-League this time around with a decent Federation Cup campaign.
Bhawanipore FC has a mixed-aged group of players, with Jose Ramires Barreto the star man of the team. The Brazilian, however, may miss a game or two due to a knock he picked up during the Bordoloi Trophy. Former Shillong Lajong man Daniel Bidemi is another crucial player in the team. Often hailed as the Indian football’s John O’Shea for his ability to play in different positions across the pitch, Bidemi’s form will be crucial to how the team performs. Young custodian Debjit has also done extremely well and was even selected as the best player in Bordoloi trophy.
Key players – Jose Ramires Barreto, Daniel Bidemi
I-League powerhouses Dempo SC have had a quiet I-League season so far. With Arthur Papas taking over the reins of the club from the experienced Armando Colaco, the Australian coach is still in the process of building his own team at the club, and with the club still in a transitional phase, it has found it difficult to string together a run of positive results. The club has, however, significantly improved in the last couple of months. Moreover, the recent signings of influential Afghan full-back Zohib Islam Amiri and Australian striker Tolgay Ozbey will definitely strengthen their squad ahead of the tournament.
The club has had some major problems on the pitch this season, not least the poor conversion rate of strikers up front. Tolgay, who has had a patchy form during the last couple of seasons, will hope to revive his career at Dempo and add that extra bite up front for his team. The form of Jeje Lalpekhlua will also be crucial to the team, with the Mizo striker having improved after a slow start to the campaign. Beto will be the man pulling the strings from the midfield, and will perhaps will the most crucial man in the team. The signing of Amiri is quite important too, with the Dempo defence having had some shaky moments during the campaign. Despite their troubles this season, Dempo look like the favorites to get past the group, especially with Mohammedan Sporting in no great form either.
Key players – Zohib Amiri, Beto, Jeje Lalpekhlua
Mohammedan Sporting had won the Durand Cup in September, prior to their I-League campaign. However, life has proved much harder for the club in the I-League so far. The injury to influential defender Luciano Sobrosa proved crucial, as the side’s defence fell apart during important games. The poor form of the team saw coach Abdul Aziz Bola make way for Sanjoy Sen. The return of Sobrosa has, however, given the team a huge boost. The Brazilian defender’s form will be important if the club is to make the semis. Equally important will be star forward Josimar, who has been one of the bright sparks in the team this season.
Although title chances look bleak for the former champions, Mohammedan Sporting will be pleased with the favorable draw for the tournament, having only a single I-League club in its group. Sanjoy Sen’s men, however, will need to improve their strike rate if they are to make the semis. The club has been bolstered by the loan signings of IMG-R contracted players, but with Tolgay Ozbey having been released, the club will need Josimar to be in top form due to the absence of other top-quality strikers.
Key players – Josimar, Luciano Sobrosa
United Sikkim FC
Co-owned by Indian footballing legend Baichung Bhutia, United Sikkim have, perhaps, the weakest team on paper in the group. The former I-League side stands little chance of progressing from the group, but will definitely look for a few positive results ahead of their I-League 2 campaign. The minnows play Mohammedan Sporting and Dempo in their first two games, and a good result against either of these sides could be disastrous for the latter.
The club does have quite a few talented players, including midfielder Ashish Chettri, skipper Milan Lepcha, although the availability of Chettri is still questionable as he is yet to recover from a knee injury. Moreover, signing seven players recently has greatly strengthened the side. The likes of Surkumar Singh, Lukram James Singh and Dharamjit Singh will add some experience to the side. The club recently roped in Ekendra Singh as its head coach, and the former Sporting Clube manager will be hoping that his team gets a few positive results to act as a morale-booster ahead of the crucial second-division campaign.
Key Players – Milan Lepcha, Surkumar Singh
January 14: Dempo vs Bhawanipore FC
January 14: Mohammedan Sporting vs United Sikkim
January 17: Bhawanipore FC vs Mohammedan Sporting
January 17: United Sikkim vs Dempo
January 20: Bhawanipore vs United Sikkim
January 20: Dempo vs Mohammedan Sporting
It is difficult to look beyond Dempo in Group D. Although the Goan giants haven’t been in their best form this season, the presence of two second division sides and a Mohammedan Sporting team in a poor run of form, means that Arthur Papas’s boys should have minimal problems in negotiating past the group.