The 2015/16 edition of the I League has reached its halfway stage and each of the nine teams have played 8 matches. Despite being a curtailed affair, the I League has witnessed fair share of drama and excitement and the plot is set for a thrilling second half.
Kolkata Giants Dominate
Defending champions Mohun Bagan have taken off from where they left off in the last season and are the only unbeaten team in the league so far. Sanjoy Sen has got his tactics spot on with the Mariners and the club has scored the highest number of goals so far. The biggest win for the team was a 2-0 win over Bengaluru FC in a high tempo game at Sree Kanteerava Stadium. The Mariners have retained the core of the squad from last season and the likes of Yusa Katsumi, Debjit Majumder and Sony Norde have led the team from the front. Though Cornell Glen has failed to score in last five games, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh have stepped up and led the attack well. The duo of Kean Lewis and Pranoy Halder have impressed in the midfield. The only worry for Mohun Bagan is the patchy form of Pritam Kotal, who had a stellar season with the Mariners last time around but has failed to replicate his performances this time round.
Mohun Bagan’ s arch rivals East Bengal head into the halfway stage with four wins in their last five matches. The Red & Gold brigade didn’t have a spectacular start to their I League campaign, but have grown in confidence as the league has progressed. East Bengal’ s defense marshaled by the duo of Arnab Mondal and Bello Rasaq has conceded the least number of goals so far. Ranti Martins has been the standout performer for the Lal-Hould brigade, scoring seven goals in eight matches. The duo of Bikas Jairu and Mehtab Hossain have been the key performers in the center of the park with Jairu in particular being a liveware down the left flank. The only worry for Biswajit Bhattacharya is the patchy form of their South Korean midfielder Do Dong-hyun. The diminutive forward was in exceptional form in the Calcutta Football League but has found the going tough in the I League. The main advantage for East Bengal is that they don’t have to play AFC Cup matches unlike their title rivals Mohun Bagan and East Bengal which means the squad will face lesser fitness issues at the fag end of the league.
Bengaluru FC Losing Steam
The JSW backed side have lost three matches and two of them have come at their home ground. Once dubbed as the fortress, Sree Kanteerava Stadium has seen Ashley Westwood’s side lose to Sporting Clube de Goa and Mohun Bagan in uncharacteristic fashion. The Bengaluru FC defense which played an instrumental role in their I League triumph two seasons ago has been wanting on several occasions despite the presence of John Johnson and Curtis Osano. A bigger worry for Ashley Westwood is the central midfield, where the departure of Josh Walker and the injury to Eugeneson Lyngdoh have exposed the team in the center of the park. This was evident in the match against Mohun Bagan, where the Mariners dominated the midfield battle. Michael Collins has failed to make any impact though he has played only three games so far and the fans would be hoping that he can hit top form soon. Ashley Westwood has been talking big and has been taking a dig at several teams but the results have been far from convincing. Bengaluru have lost to both their top-three rivals in the I League, and the JSW side can’t afford to drop any more points if they have to win it back.
Historic Debut For Aizawl FC
Aizawl FC made a much fancied debut in the top flight of Indian Football and in process the club added a much needed dose of freshness to the I League. Despite losing their first match to Mohun Bagan in Kolkata, fans thronged in large number when the club played its first home match against Bengaluru FC at the picturesque Rajiv Gandhi stadium.The entire state wore a festive look and the local FM channel even aired live commentary of the match. Though the team lost to Bengaluru FC, they put up a good display and won the hearts with their attacking brand of football and the setting was so perfect that the team from the garden city took to twitter to thank Aizawl FC. Aizawl FC even enjoyed tremendous support in their away matches in Kolkata where a large number of fans traveled from the state to witness the matches against Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Aizawl went into the halfway stage with a moral boasting 2-0 win over Mumbai FC, their second win of the season. The club has notched up seven of their eight points at home and are expected to do well at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, even in the second half. If the club can improve their away form, they can well target a mid table finish.
CK Vineeth, Kean Lewis & Mehtab Hossain Impress
With two world cup qualifiers coming up against Iran and Turkmenistan, it will be interesting to see if Stephen Constantine picks up some of the best performers in the I League so far. CK Vineeth wasn’t included in the squad for the SAFF Cup but has been a vital cog in Bengaluru FC machine this season with Ashley Westwood using him both on the right flank and as a target man upfront. Vineeth has scored thrice in the I League and once in the AFC cup and his physical presence could be key to the national team in absence of Robin Singh. Another player who has impressed so far is the veteran Mehtab Hossain. Operating as a deep lying playmaker, Mehtab has performed both his defensive and creative duties admirably for the Lal-Hould brigade. With Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Sehnaj Singh yet to completely recover, Constantine may fancy giving Mehtab a chance in the national team. Kean Lewis is another player who has done a good job for Mohun Bagan on the right side of the midfield and may get a chance in the national team.
Among the national team regulars, Jeje has carried his rich vein of form into the new year and has scored five goals for Mohun Bagan so far. Bikas Jairu on the other hand has three goals to his name in addition to a few assists while Pronay Halder has earned praise for his performances with Mohun Bagan. Skipper Sunil Chhetri too has three goals to his tally. Pritam Kotal’s patchy form however remains a cause of concern so does the lack of emergence of any central defender. There haven’t been any notable performances from Indian players in the heart of defense and with Anas Edathodika and Sandesh Jhingan recovering, Constantine doesn’t have a lot of options at his disposal for the central defender spot.
Increasing Attendance and Fan Clubs
The first half of the season has seen an increase in the match attendances and this has surely come as a shot in the arm for the I League when it was being compared to the Indian Super League. The average attendance has gone up from last season’s average of 5909 to 8296 – a 40% increase. The Kolkata derby was the highest attended match with the official figure of 62,842 with Bagan v Bengaluru, and Bagan v Aizawl featuring next.
Another positive thing that has happened this season is the emergence of fan clubs with West Block Blues taking the lead. The fan club has made its presence felt in all Bengaluru home games, where they have cheered the team and the players on.
Bengaluru FC’ s match against Mohun Bagan deserves a special mention in this regard, as the travelling Bagan fans matched West Block Blues in terms of decibels. With both sets of fans cheering on their team, it was reminiscent of the the atmosphere in the European leagues, and it was indeed a night to remember for Indian Football fans.
The second half of the I League promises to be even more exciting, as both the relegation and title battles are likely to go down to the wire. It remains to be seen who lifts the I League trophy come the 24th of April.
Image Source: I League Media