The 2015/16 edition of the I League kicked off barely a week after Indian Natioanl Football team lifted the SAFF Championships defeating Afghanistan in the finals. With Royal Wahingdoh and Pune FC opting out of the league, the number of teams was reduced to nine with DSK Shivajians being the latest entrants in the top flight of Indian Football along with the newly promoted Aizwal FC. The start of the league was marred by the fact that a lot of professional players were left without a club given the fact that the number of teams had gone down and also because a lot of clubs were financially struggling.
One thing that stood on the first match day was the loss of both Goan clubs – Salgaocar FC and Sporting Club de Goa at their respective home grounds. 2014/15 was not a good edition for the Goan clubs with Dempo getting relegated and Sporting and Salgaocar finishing seventh and eighth respectively having avoided relegation narrowly. In a matter of three seasons, Goan representation has come down from four clubs to two clubs in the top flight of Indian Football and the 2015/16 season has also begun on a losing note for both the clubs.
Goa had piped Kolkata as the pinnacle of Indian Football and the Goan clubs had established their supremacy with the Goan clubs emerging champions for six straight seasons from 2007/08 to 2012/13. However the performance of the Goan clubs has taken a beating in last couple of seasons and as a result the fans have also lost interest and this has been reflected in the dwindling attendance at the I League matches. This is in sharp contrast to the Indian Super League where the entire state rallied behind FC Goa making it one of the most celebrated clubs in the Indian Super League.
Sporting Clube de Goa came into the I League high on confidence having won the Goan Pro League and started on a positive note. The Flaming Oranje dominated the first half against East Bengal and went into the break leading through a Odafa Okolie goal. However they were found wanting in the second half as Ranti Martins created havoc in the Sporting defense scoring two and assisting one . Loveday Enyinnaya and Dharmaraj Ravanan failed to mark down Ranti who easily got past the defense to score two goals. Joseph Clemente in particular was given hard time by Bikas Jairu on the right wing. With Creson Antao still injured and Sandesh Jhingan no longer with the squad, Sporting coach Mateus Costa will have to sort out his defense before the next match against DSK Shivajians on 17th of this month. Brandon Fernandes who played a key role in reviving club’s fortunes last season is no longer with the club but the club has enough talent in the midfield to cover up for the talented youngster. The inclusion of Denzil Theobald should ease the pressure on Odafa Okolie and add depth to Sporting’ s attack.
Despite having signed the likes of Satiyasen Singh, Jackichand Singh and Reagan Singh, Salgaocar under new coach Malky Thomson went down to Bengaluru in their opening encounter. Like Sporting, Salgaocar lacked a leader in the defense and the holes in the defense were exploited by the Bengaluru strikers. Nicolau Colaco who plays as a right back was deployed as a central defender and he looked out of sorts throughout the match. Salgaocar need a leader in the defense and if sources are to be believed a foreign defender from Zambia may join the club. Jackichand Singh had a good first game in Salgaocar and was the main creative spark in the team. The addition of Martin Scot and Calvin Mbarga should add steel to the Salgaocar attack and take pressure off Darryl Duffy. Haokip is also close to join the club and the former Pune FC striker will look to carry his impressive form from the ISL into the I League.
Mohun Bagan’ s Shaky Defense
Defending Champions Mohun Bagan started their title defense with a 3-1 win over newly promoted Aizwal FC in a match which can be easily described as a match of two halves. Sanjoy Sen’ s mentored Mohun Bagan surged ahead to a 3-1 lead inside the first 30 minutes thanks to a brace from Cornell Glen and a goal from Balwant Singh. Pritam Kotal’ s own goal had reduced the margin for the visitors.
Aizwal FC however dominated the second half and exposed Bagan’ s defensive woes time and again with their pace and skills. The Bagan defense was at sixes and seven and the defenders lacked coordination. Debjit Majumder who played a stellar role in Bagan’ s I League triumph last season was missing from the squad due to office commitments and his presence under the bar was certainly missed. Captain Shilton Paul spilled the ball on multiple occasions on what seemed like regular gathering for an custodian and had Aizwal FC taken advantage, the scoreline could have been different. Shilton had an under par Kolkata Football League last season and Sanjoy Sen would be eager to welcome back Debjit Majumder in the next match. The Mariners were also missing Brazilian Luciano Sabrosa in the central defense who is yet to join the team. Sabrosa is expected to lead the backline for the Mariners and fill the void created by the departure of Bello Rasaq.
There positives however for Sanjoy Sen in the midfield and striking departments as the team performed will despite the absence of a lot of key players. Balwant Singh who failed to garner significant playing time in the Indian Super League combined well with Cornell Glen upfront. The fact that Mariners scored three goals in the absence of Sony Norde augurs well for them. Kean Lewis gave a good account of himself on the wings and Souvik Chakraborty played his part to perfection in the heart of the midfield. With Lenny Rodrigues, Pronay Halder, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Sony Norde likely to be available in the coming matches, Bagan have a lot of options in the middle and the attacking third of their team.
Bengaluru FC’ s Strong Start
JSW owned Bengaluru FC made a strong start to the I League with a 2-1 away win over Salgaocar with CK Vineeth and Sunil Chhetri getting on the score-sheet for the Ashley Westwood side. Bengaluru started with purpose against Salgaocar in Goa and went into the lead inside the five minute with Vineeth slotting home a ball from Kim Seng-yong from the right. Salgaocar equalised through Darryl Duffy but skipper Sunil Chhetri scored from a freekick at the hour mark to give Bengaluru into the lead once again.
However what stood out once again was the well oiled Bengaluru FC with every player playing his part to perfection. Thoi Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Eugeneson Lyngdoh and others slotted well into the team after stints with the Indian Super League franchises and the national team. Vineeth who was deployed at the target man by Westwood deserves a special mention as he particular played a key role in the win with his tireless work-rate upfront. Bengaluru FC have signed a lot of key players in the off season which includes the likes of Amrinder Singh, Alwyn George and Seminlen Doungel and coach Ashley Westwood has a couple of players competing for each position, something which augurs well for the team given the fact that Bengaluru have to take part in the AFC Cup.
In the last matchday of the I League, Shillong Lajong played host to Khalid Jamil’ s Mumbai FC. It was the hosts that began on a promising note and could have gone ahead in the 30th minute through Fabio Henrique but the striker shot wide off the goal. Mumbai FC also had their chances in the match but were denied by Lajong goalkeeper Vishal Kaith on several occasions. Kaith was awarded the man of the match award as both sides picked up their first point courtesy the draw.
Image Courtesy : I League Media Team