The U-19 I-League is an important event in the Indian football calendar. Started in 2011 to provide young footballers a platform to showcase their talent, the league was changed to a U-20 event in 2012, before the AIFF decided to return to the U-19 format for this year’s event. This season’s edition, moreover, will be played in a revised, expanded format. Unlike in the previous years’ editions, the 2014 U-19 I-League will be played on a zonal basis. The new format has been devised for the purpose of wider participation, with as many as 28 sides set to fight it out for the title. Two-time defending champions Pune FC will once again start the tournament as the favorites, but with many other talented sides participating this term, it will be a much tougher proposition for the Red Lizards this season, than in previous ones.
The league has been categorized into five zones – Goa, Kolkata, Maharastra, Shillong and Rest of India for the first round. The teams in all the four zones, barring the Rest of India zone, will be playing opponents from their zones in home and away basis. The table-topping team from each of the zones will qualify for a final leg of the tournament in Jamshedpur to be played in April. On the other hand, the eight teams in the Rest of India zone will play each other in a single-legged round in Jamshedpur, with the top two sides moving into the final round. Thus, six teams will finally fight it out for the title in the final round in Jamshedpur, in April.
The Maharastra zone will be the first to commence, with PIFA Sports FC taking on Kenkre SC on Tuesday. There are five teams in this zone – Pune FC, Mumbai FC, AIFF Regional Academy, Kenkre SC and PIFA Sports FC. The presence of the Regional Academy team will, no doubt, be a big hindrance to Pune FC’s chances of qualifying for the final round. Mumbai FC too will fancy their chances of moving into the next round, but the Red Lizards and the Academy boys look like the ones set to fight it out for a place in the next round. Kenkre and PIFA, on the other hand, will hope to cause a few upsets during the round, but their chances of finishing ahead of Pune FC, Mumbai FC and ANMA (academy boys) remain bleak.
The Pune FC squad looks like the strongest on paper. With the likes of Henry Monsang, Altamash Sayed, Rushabh Dhere, Vikas Zanje and many other talented players in the squad, Pune FC will be the favorites to retain the title they won in last two seasons. However, the road will not be easy for the young Lizards. The defending champions will start their campaign against Kenkre on 17th, away from home. Three days later, Pune will host rivals Mumbai FC in an important clash, before they head to a three week-long break in the league. The Red Lizards will then face ANMA away on February 11, in one of the most crucial clashes of the round. After facing PIFA, Kenkre and Mumbai FC in the next three games, the holders will then host ANMA in their penultimate game, which could well decide the winners of the round. PIFA will be the final opponents for Pune in this round.
The fixture list, however, could have been a bit more forgiving on ANMA. The Academy boys will have to play three games during the first week of the round itself, starting off with their clash against Mumbai FC. After the grueling start, ANMA will play Pune FC twice after the break, and will end their campaign on 28th February, eight days before Pune FC play their final game. Despite the tough start, ANMA will throw Pune FC a huge challenge to finish at the top. With some highly talented players like Bidyananda Singh, Rakesh Oram, Milan Basumatary, etc., it wouldn’t be a surprise if the U-19 I-League debutants pip Pune FC to the top spot in the Maharastra Zone and move into the final round.
While it is difficult to look beyond Pune FC and ANMA in the Maharastra zone, it will be foolish of either clubs to write off the chances of Mumbai FC, who may yet surprise quite a few people and move into the next round, especially with some talented youngsters like Girik Gosla in the team. However, for the Mumbaikars to win the zone, it will take a gigantic effort to get the better of the two title contenders. Moreover, with ANMA and Pune FC being their first two opponents, a slow start could kill the club’s chances of finishing top in the first week itself. The other two sides in the zone, Kenkre and PIFA, will hope to make good impressions of themselves throughout the round but the chances of either team finishing ahead of Pune, Mumbai and ANMA are minute. Complacency against these teams by the big boys, however, can be extremely dangerous for the latter.