A fresh round of fixtures falls upon the I-League, with a familiar cast monopolising the top half of the table. The coming week will see a game for bragging rights in the North East, an opportunity for Mohammedan Sporting to travel away, and for Sreenidi Deccan to make up lost ground.
THE DERBY IN THE HILLS
To truly understand how big a game this is, it’s necessary to cast the mind back to the I-League 2016-17 season when Aizawl FC won the title cementing their status as not just one of the best feelgood successes of any season but also as a club to be taken seriously, who had invested in youth and grassroots development.
That title tilt wasn’t all easy and going into the final day of that season they played Shillong Lajong, in Shillong, needing a result to take the championship. Lajong FC almost ruined that party and it took a lot of defensive nous for Aizawl FC to keep the draw preserved. Aizawl FC never dropped out of the I-League since that title triumph, and have been perennial fan favourites, and mid-table regulars. Lajong FC, meanwhile, have just come back up. And they’ve done it in style, playing the kind of football that makes everyone swoon. The two teams are separated by two points and two places on the table, making all of this even more exciting. For Shillong Lajong, a win will cement them as serious title contenders. For Aizawl FC, this is a chance to bust a party still waiting to happen.
UP AND DOWN
Mohammedan Sporting will be hugely disappointed with their missed opportunity to extend the lead at the top of the table against Gokulam Kerala in the previous round of fixtures. Having beaten Sreenidi Deccan, with a game in hand, they are now leading by three points, but in reality, in the I-League it’s never enough. Their game against Gokulam Kerala provides other teams a blueprint to work with — while Mohammedan Sporting themselves will address it as an anomaly. The withdrawal of Alexis Gomez changed the texture of that fixture, turning it from a one-sided beat down into a battle for survival.
The Argentinian is the lynchpin of the Mohammedan Sporting midfield, and distracts a lot of players with his movement and control. His absence hurt Mohammedan Sporting and it won’t be a surprise if Namdhari FC put him under the sword physically as well as tactically to negate the impact. Playing at home, the debutants are in the bottom two, and despite being immune to relegation will know that there’s a lot of pride at stake. A result against Mohammedan Sporting will boost their own confidence and as a bonus, throw the race wide open.
LOOKING UP BUT NOT ENOUGH
For Gokulam Kerala, the point salvaged against Mohammedan Sporting will be bittersweet. It was a brave performance, but with some clinical finishing they could have sneaked away with a valuable victory. Stuck in the middle of the table — albeit separated by a mere three points from third place — the Malabarians will hope to recapture some of the form, and the flair that has made them a prospect for every title since they won their first. They seem off the pace when it comes to the league right now, but need to start working towards the top if they don’t want to languish in mediocrity.
Their hosts Real Kashmir FC face a similar existential crisis. Fourth on the table but without a win (or a goal) in their last two games their shine has suddenly worn off. But that may be a cynical way of looking at things, seeing as they held off Sreenidi Deccan and Aizawl FC in their last two fixtures — no easy task. For Sreenidi Deccan, who host Delhi FC on December 11, the task is simpler — and just that much harder. They have dropped too many points already and need to curb the bleeding. For a team with title aspirations, a loss or a draw may feel like a lead too far to bridge.
THROUGH THICK AND THIN
Things can change fast in the I-League. Just two seasons back, TRAU FC and Churchill Brothers were vying for the I-league title. While the latter fell off in the final weeks of the season, TRAU kept the fight going till literally the final day. In what is a seismic shift, TRAU now look certain to be relegated at the end of the season. The club have lost five in a row (and seven of the eight they’ve played) and have a single point to show for the season. They’ve conceded on an average almost three goals a game, and scored a mere three. It’s the stuff of nightmares, and there’s no easy way to start the recovery. Playing against a debutant team in Inter Kashi offers them a first step back, but most hope seems to have been wrung out of them. Churchill Brothers’ seat at ninth place (Just three off the bottom three) is a bit more surprising. They’ve put together a very talented squad and seem to have all the makings of a good team. The results haven’t panned out that way and a mixed run of form leaves them in serious danger. Nothing better than beating the team right below them, NEROCA FC, to start the slow climb upwards.