As the ongoing I-League season enters its business end, the battle for the championship looks as competitive as the competition to stay afloat in the division. While five teams are slugging it out for the title, including East Bengal; as many as six teams are desperately trying to beat the drop. Amongst the six clubs, Rangdajied United, Mohun Bagan, Mumbai FC, United Sports Club, Mohammedan Sporting and Churchill Brothers, some are the usual suspects, while the others are surprise packages.
Churchill Brothers are surely the highlights of this list. The Red Machine, who lifted the I-League last season, presently find themselves rock-bottom in the standings. This is the first time in the history of the I-League that the defending champions are fighting for survival. Subhas Bhowmick, who guided the club to the I-League title last season, has been roped in again as the technical director of the club after former JCT boss Sukhwinder Singh failed to impress at the start of the season. However, despite lifting their maiden Federation Cup a couple of months back, the Goan outfit are still finding it hard to find their mark in the country’s top domestic tournament, where they have racked up just 17 points from 15 matches. With a few games in hand, however, and with the experienced and talented individuals in their squad, Churchill are expected to thwart relegation this term.
Next up are Mohun Bagan, who have managed to transform themselves into a relegation-battling unit from a title winning force in recent years. So, this year’s campaign did not come as a shock to many. The Kolkata giants, who have thus far managed to pick up just 21 points from 20 games, are currently 9th in the standings. With all the four clubs below them having games in hand, Karim Bencharifa’s side may find themselves slipping further down the table over the next few weeks. An unbalanced team coupled with over-reliance on Odafa Okolie, who has managed to play just a handful matches this season due to injuries, has seriously hampered their campaign. However, the Green and Maroon are expected to beat the drop due to their sheer pedigree and talented individuals, despite flattering to deceive on the grand stage once again.
Another Kolkata-based club Mohammedan Sporting also find themselves in the relegation zone despite building a good team this term. However, inconsistency, a tag with which the Black and White has been associated over the years, has remained with them this season too. Few can predict what Mohammedan could do, as they play superbly in a game and then draw blanks in the very next fixture. The club won the Durand Cup and the IFA Shield this term, but have failed to hit the ground running in the I-League. With Sanjoy Sen, who guided the club to promotion last season, being back in the Mohammedan hot-seat and a decent squad at his disposal, the club, however, may just stave off relegation from the division.
United Sports are the third club from Kolkata in the relegation mix and it shows that the City of Joy is slowly losing its title of “Mecca of Indian Football.” United Sports, formerly Prayag United, are the worst-hit amongst the Kolkata teams when it comes to the financial constraints surrounding the clubs from the city. Playing without a sponsor for the better part of the season, the Purple Brigade made a decent start to their campaign; but with coach Eelco Schattorie and star striker Ranty Martins leaving the club midway through the season, United Sports are quickly sliding down the table. Even the appointment of experienced and shrewd tactician Subrata Bhattacharya as the technical-director has failed to stem the rot. Lack of motivation is the club’s biggest challenge as club officials are finding it hard to clear the dues of the players and the coaching staff. The players, however, commendably took the financial crunch in their chin and always vowed to give their all for the club. Despite their laudable attitude so far, it seems like their enthusiasm is slowly fading away. With 20 points from 19 games in their kitty and no motivation surrounding the club, United may find it hard to maintain their place in the I-League.
What is United Sports’ loss, has been Rangdajied United’s gain. The Shillong club, who were at the bottom of the standings for most of the season, received a shot in the arm with the signing of Ranty Martins. The prolific Nigerian goalscorer has immediately set the ball rolling at the club as Rangdajied have surged up the table with 21 points from 19 games after notching up three consecutive victories. Roping in players like Steven Dias, Gouramangi Singh and Manandeep Singh and replacing coach Santosh Kashyap with local boy Herring Shangpliang have also paid rich dividends. The I-League 2nd Division champions are slowly starting to impress in their debut season in the country’s top-tier division and may have done just enough to extend their stay in the I-League.
Mumbai FC were always going to be involved in the relegation scramble. Khalid Jamil’s boys are currently 10th with 20 points from 19 games. The club are winless in their last seven I-League encounters and have managed to pick up just six points from those outings. With matches against East Bengal, Shillong Lajong and Dempo, who are all above them in the points table, coming up next, the Mumbai outfit may find themselves further down the standings. The Yellow and Blue brigade, however, have lost just 5 league matches till now, which is the least amongst the clubs staring at relegation. Mumbai FC are also the team with the most number of draws in the division to their name, eleven, meaning that they are not the easiest nut to crack. On the flip side, they have won just three matches in their I-League campaign thus far, the lowest in the competition. So Mumbai FC really need to accumulate some wins under their belt to stay in the division.
With just six points separating the sextet of clubs battling for safety, this season may witness the most hard-fought relegation dog-fight in I-League’s history, although just one team will be dropped to the second tier. Couple of wins or defeats by any club will drastically change the standings, but United Sports and Mumbai FC are the front runners to finish the season in the dreaded 13th spot. However, each of the six clubs will be vying desperately to thwart relegation till the end, as it’s not over until the fat lady sings.
Written by THT Guest Author Samya Majumdar. Follow the Author on Twitter