Round 23 was full of upsets in the I-League. The race for the title got intensified after front-runners Bengaluru FC, Pune FC and Salgaocar dropped points; while East Bengal managed to keep their hope of lifting the country’s top domestic trophy intact by beating Sporting Clube de Goa, thereby quashing the Flaming Oranges’ title challenge. Things are pretty tense at the bottom-end of the table too as teams are trying desperately to beat the drop. Relegation contenders Mohun Bagan and Mumbai FC registered crucial victories to march towards safety, while United Sports, Mohammedan Sporting and Churchill Brothers dropped valuable points in their bid to stay afloat in the division. With the I-League entering its final phase, expect plenty more upsets and surprising results in the 24th Round.

Whose title ambition will go up in smoke?

Salgaocar Coach Derrick Pereira- Up against his former side Pune FC

Salgaocar Coach Derrick Pereira- Up against his former side Pune FC

Pune FC versus Salgaocar promises to be a cracker of a match as both teams are vying for the title this season. Fifth-placed Pune FC, who have 31 points from 20 games, managed to hold leaders Bengaluru FC to a 1-1 draw in the previous round. On the other hand, Salgaocar’s title aspiration took a huge blow following their disappointing 2-1 defeat to Rangdajied United at the weekend.  The Goan club have played a game more than Pune FC and are currently second in the standings, just four adrift of Bengaluru FC. Both clubs cannot afford a loss or even a draw for that matter. So an end-to-end thrilling encounter awaits us at the Balewadi Sports Complex on Friday. An added spice to the game will be that Salgaocar manager Derrick Pereira will return to his former stomping ground for the first time since leaving the club after the end of last season.

The Kolkata Derby

While East Bengal will be looking to stride up the I-League table, Mohammedan are desperate to shed off their “last-boy” tag. Freshly buoyed by their win over Sporting last week, East Bengal will be keen to build on the victory to launch a final assault towards the championship. However, a huge stumbling block for Armando Colaco’s men going into the match is their record in the league; the Red and Gold have failed to muster two consecutive wins in the I-League this season. On the flip side, East Bengal should be confident about claiming the full points against Mohammedan, whom they defeated 2-1 in the corresponding fixture in March. East Bengal, who are sixth in the table with 31 points from 19 games, cannot afford any more slip-ups if they want to catch leaders Bengaluru FC. Sanjoy Sen’s side too will be keen to achieve a positive result from the game in view of moving clear of the one and only relegation spot. Mohammedan, who have just 18 points from 20 outings, have never managed to spend two consecutive seasons in the country’s top division, and this fixture may well go on to decide whether they manage to break their jinx or not.

Will Tolgay and Dempo’s Superb Run Continue?

Tolgay Ozbey

Dempo Striker Tolgay Ozbey has been in red-hot form in recent weeks.

Dempo are surely the team to beat in the second half of the I-League. The Goan giants were struggling for form in the league before the Federation Cup; but Arthur Papas’ side have played some sensational football post the domestic cup competition and a huge part of the reformation should be credited to Tolgay Ozbey. The Australian joined Dempo from Mohammedan during the winter transfer window and has since found the back of the net eight times in five league appearances for the club. Four of those eight strikes came in his side’s 4-1 rout of champions Churchill Brothers in the previous round. Since Tolgay’s arrival, Dempo have managed to pick up 15 points from six games which sees the club move up to fourth place in the table with 31 points from 21 points. But Dempo may find a tough opposition in Mumbai FC as Khalid Jamil’s boys are upbeat following their 2-1 triumph over Shillong Lajong last week. The win helped Mumbai FC to move six points clear off the relegation spot and they will be looking forward to claiming another three points against Dempo, which may be enough to cement their place in the division for another season at least.

It’s Now or Never for the Defending Champions

Churchill Brothers are enduring a very difficult I-league campaign which sees them just above bottom-placed Mohammedan. The Goan club are level on points with the Black and Whites,18 points, but have played a game less than the IFA Shield and Durand Cup champions. Churchill’s morale will be seriously down before facing Sporting as they endured a disappointing 4-1 loss at the hands of Dempo last Friday. The reigning I-League champions, who also lifted the Federation Cup this season, have been in decent form in the AFC Cup too, but it seems as they are losing the plot when it comes to the league games. With time running out fast, Subhash Bhowmick’s side need to accumulate as many points from their remaining five fixtures to steer clear of relegation, or else they might become the first Indian team to go down to the second tier  after winning the championship in the previous season. Sporting on the other hand will be poised to notch up their second successive win after edging out Rangdajied United 2-1 on Wednesday.  The Flaming Orange are not in the title race anymore, but they will be trying to finish the season as high as possible.

Can Odafa Steer Mohun Bagan to Safety?

Mohun Bagan will be heavily relying on Odafa's goalscoring prowess to steer clear of relegation.

Mohun Bagan will be heavily relying on Odafa’s goalscoring prowess to steer clear of relegation.

Mohun Bagan’s relegation-threatened season received a huge shot in the arm following their 3-1 victory over Sporting in the previous round, with Odafa Okolie scoring twice in the fixture. The Nigerian goal-machine has been a huge disappointment for the Kolkata outfit this term. The highest-paid player in the I-League has featured in just a handful of matches in the current campaign due to niggling injuries, something which has miffed the club officials. And some sources claim that Mohun Bagan are unwilling to offer Odafa a fresh contract. So the striker will be desperate to up his market-value by putting in impressive performances in the club’s last few games which may in turn help Mohun Bagan in their bid to save relegation. The Green and Maroon are ninth in the league table with 24 points from 21 games and a win should be enough to save their frail campaign. However, next up for Mohun Bagan are leaders Bengaluru FC, who are desperate to return to winning ways after picking up just a solitary point from their last two matches. It will be a keenly contested affair as both teams will be gunning for the full points, although for different reasons.

I-League Fixtures

Pune FC V Salgaocar FC, April 4, 7.00 PM

Mohammedan SC V East Bengal, April 5, 5.00 PM

Dempo SC V Mumbai FC, April 5, 6.00 PM

Mohun Bagan V Bengaluru FC, April 6, 4.00 PM

Sporting Clube de Goa V Churchill Brothers, April 6, 5.00 PM