I-League 2019-20: Will the New Season See A New Winner, Yet Again?
The 13th edition of the I-League will kick-off on Saturday, 30 November.
The 13th edition of the I-League is all set to kick-off this Saturday, 30 November.
A total of 11 teams will be vying for top honours across 110 matches to be played over a period of five months and 17 weeks. The competition will get underway with a clash between former champions Aizawl FC and Mohun Bagan in Mizoram’s capital. This will be followed by Gokulam Kerala FC taking on Neroca FC in Kerala.
Defending champions Chennai City FC will begin their title defence against debutantes TRAU FC from Manipur on Sunday, 1 December.
Apart from the iconic Kolkata derby - between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, this time the league will also feature the Imphal derby, which will take place for the first time at the national level, with TRAU FC taking on Neroca FC in Manipur’s capital Imphal.
All matches of the season will be telecast LIVE on DSPORT.
The I-League has witnessed great competition, especially in the last five years with five different clubs winning it. Veteran clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Churchill Brothers have found it difficult in the face of competition from much younger clubs.
The Usual Suspects
Yet to win the I-League trophy in its 13 years of existence, East Bengal, like their city neighbour Mohun Bagan, have come agonisingly close to tasting success. However, in the National Football League (the I-League’s previous avatar) the red-and-yellow brigade had won the league back to back in 2002-03 and 2003-04.
In fact, in the I-League, they have been the runners-up on four occasions, the maximum by any side, the latest being last season.
Last season, East Bengal finished second behind Chennai City FC, only by a solitary point.
However, a major high-point of the season was beating arch-rival Mohun Bagan, not once but twice in the league.
Most probably their final session in the I-league, the red-and-gold brigade will look to bid farewell in the grandest manner possible.
Coach Alejandro Menendez has done all the hard work in the one year he has spent at the club but sadly that hasn’t reaped the benefits he was hoping for. In the pre-season tournament – namely the Durand Cup and the Calcutta Football League – the side had an average outing by their lofty standards.
From finishing third in the league to getting knocked out in the Durand semis, it hasn’t been easy going for the side in the run-up to this season.
High-profile names Enrique Esqueda and Johnny Acosta have both been released, along with Toni Dovale after an uneventful loan spell. Jobby Justin also made his way out along with few other Indian names.
Defenders Marti Crespi and Juan Mera Gonzalez have been roped in along with striker Marcos de la Espada. But coach Menendez is investing big time on youth. Goan forward Ronaldo Olivera. Lalthuammawia Ralte from FC Goa, Abhijit Sarkar from Chennaiyin FC and Naorem Tondomba Singh from NEROCA FC form the young brigade.
The 2015 champions have come tantalising close to winning the league on a number of occasions in the recent past but failed to go past the final hurdle. However, they had a forgettable last season where they went down to arch-rival East Bengal twice in the season. The Mariners finished a disappointing fifth in the league.
With a new coach at helm, Spanish KIbu Vicuna, the side tasted some success at the Durand Cup but once again failed to finish on a high. They lost the final to Gokulam Kerala FC. The Calcutta League continued to elude Mohun Bagan.
Vicuna, who went for a complete overhaul of the side, released Dipanda Dicka and Kingsley Obunemne and brought in a host of Spaniards. Mohun Bagan’s talisman, Sony Norde is also no longer part of the team.
The new recruits include defenders Francisco Morante, Julen Colinas and Daneil Cyrus. In midfield the new additions are Francisco Gonzalez, Joseba Beitia and striker Salva Chamorro fills in the last overseas spot.
As far as big Indian names are concerned Mohun Bagan brought back the experienced Dhanachandra Singh, along with Ashutosh Mehta.
But despite all the new additions the absence of a proper goalscorer might be a problem for the green and maroon brigade this season.
The Defending Champions
Chennai City FC
Only the second team from the southern part of the country to win the I-League, Chennai City FC came out of no where to clinch the league lasts season. Coach Akbar Nawas, along with the Spanish trio of Pedro Manzi, Nestro Gordillo and Sandro Rodriguez, were the architects of a successful season, which saw the side score 48 goals.
But as things stand now, the reigning champions have a task at hand after losing many of their key players from the title-winning squad in the summer.
The one that hurt them the most was the departure of Nestor Gordillo to Hyderabad FC. To compensate for Gordillo, Nawas has brought in former Mohun Bagan star Katsumi Yusa from NEROCA FC. Another exciting signing for the club is 19-year-old Syed Pasha from the B-team.
The Chennai outfit had a forgettable pre-season outing. They didn’t go past the group stage in the Durand Cup, registering one win out of three matches. The Lions, as they are fondly called, also played the Sheikh Kamal International Club Cup as part of their pre-season preparations but were knocked out after losing all three of their games.
Real Kashmir FC
The Kashmir side almost had a fairytale debut in the I-League last season. Real Kashmir FC gave established teams a run for their money, eventually, they settled for an impressive third spot on the points table.
A big shout out to their coach David Robertson, who has been at the helm since the start of 2017. The Kashmir outfit lost only three times in the last edition to finish above former I-league champions Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers.
The side was able to hold on to their core side this summer, with the exception of left-back Abhash Thapa. The addition of Scottish midfielder Kallum Higginbotham, along with the loan arrival of Oxford United youngster Kashif Siddiqui, will surely bolster the side in this edition.
The versatility of local boy Danish Farooq will also be a big factor if the Kashmir side wants to lay hands on the trophy.
Gokulam Kerala FC
Their pre-season outing is the only reason they have found a place among the contenders. In their two seasons in the I-League so far, the club from Kerala could only manage seventh-place and ninth-place finish, winning only three out of their 20 games.
But the return of Ugandan striker Henry Kisekka and overseas head coach Fernando Santiago Varela, has turned around the fortunes of the side.
Gokulam registered an impressive 3-1 victory over ISL champions Bengaluru FC in pre-season while managing 1-1 draws against Mumbai City FC and Chennaiyin FC. If this wasn’t enough, the side was crowned Durand Champions after they beat Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan 2-1.
This was followed by the Sheikh Kamal Cup in Bangladesh where they won two of their three group games before eventually bowing out in the semis.
With an attack as good as any side in the competition, it is the defence that needs to be taken care of and Gokulam could well be the surprise package of the season.
The first fairytale in the history of I-League. Aizawl FC were crowned champions out of nowhere in 2017. But since then it has been a tumultuous ride for the Mizo club.
Last season, the side recovered well to prevent relegation, courtesy coach Stanley Rozario, who was hired mid-season. From the bottom of the table, the team managed to finish seventh on the points table.
Things might get murkier for the side this time around, especially with many of their key players departing for greener pastures.
Ansumana Kromah, who was their top scorer last season, joined Peerless SC in Kolkata. In fact, it was Kromah, who led Peerless to their maiden Calcutta League title this season. The other two first-team regular foreigners - Kareem Nurain and Leonce Dodoz Zikahi - also left for Kolkata clubs. Out of the 27 goals scored by Aizawl FC last season, Kromah, Dodoz and Mapuia combined for 18.
One of the Indian talents Mapuia also left for Churchill Brothers this season.
However, the return of William Lalnunfela and Kingsley Obumneme, who were part of the title winning side of 2017, will be big boost for veteran coach Rozario, who will look to recreate the magic of 2017.
Manipur’s NEROCA FC also had an equally successful debut in the I-League just like their Mizoram counterpart. Only difference being, they failed to overcome the final hurdle, finishing second in their maiden season in 2017-18.
But the side got a reality check last season, courtesy some off-the-field drama, which saw the side finish sixth on the points table. The side failed to capitalise on its form despite starting the season on a great note - notching wins against the likes of Mohun Bagan, Real Kashmir and Churchill Brothers.
With all the backroom drama laid to rest, the return of Gift Raikhan, who was at helm in their debut season, might once again usher in a good year at the Imphal-based club.
On the transfer front, NEROCA have been busy this summer, especially after releasing the entire roster of their overseas players. Japanese midfielder Katsumi Yusa and Nigerian forward Felix Odili Chidi being the big names.
In return, NEROCA FC made nine new signings, including six overseas players. Trinidadian goalkeeper Marvin Devon Philip, defender Taryk Sampson, and Gaty Kouami and Sekle Yawo Zico of Congo were the notable ones.
But the lack of match practice and dearth in bench strength can be a cause for concern.
The two-time I-League champions Churchill Brothers are the most successful team among the current lot in the history of the league. But the thing is that it was around six years ago when they last shot to fame.
Since 2013, the best they could manage was a fourth-place finish last season. With former Ghanaian international goalkeeper, Edward Ansah as the head coach, the Goan outfit would be keen to set things right this season.
On the players front, the side bid farewell to a chunk of their foreign recruits, including Uganda international Khalid Aucho. But the arrival of Minerva Punjab duo of Robert Primus and Kalif Alhassan might compensate for the loss.
Meanwhile, Lalkhawpuimawia is a great Indian addition to the roster, who will look to complement Willis Plaza upfront.
Churchill Brothers were part of the title race for a greater part of the season last season but the veteran club would like to do better than that this time around.
Rechristened Punjab FC, the Mohali-based football club would like to renew itsfortunes along with the new name.
Previously known as Minerva Punjab FC, the side has seen the best of both worlds. After a dismal debut season, which saw them finish ninth in 2016-17, Punjab FC came back next season to clinch the title in 2017-18.
Last season, however, they were back to where they had started. From being the defending champions, the side dropped to tenth place in the final league standings.
The open rift between owner Ranjit Bajaj and the AIFF officials also took a toll on the club’s fortune.
But the new season has brought in a new coach - Yan Law - and a new hope to recreate the success of the 2017-18 season. With the signing of Aser Pierrick Dipanda, Teah Dennis and Danilo in defence and Sanju Pradhan in midfield, Punjab FC has another reason to hopeful of making stride this season.
Their pre-season game against Bengaluru FC, which saw them beat the ISL champions, will be a big boost for one the youngest sides in the league.
The New Kid
Debutants Tiddim Road Athletic Union Football Club (TRAU FC) will look to continue the rich legacy of I-League clubs hitting the bulls eye in their debut season.
The side won the I-League 2nd division, their first ever professional league trophy, to make it to the I-League.
With a new coach from Cyprus at the helm, the side will hope to continue its rich vein of form under Dimitris Dimitriou. With a couple of foreigners in the roster from Africa and Brazil, the youngest team in the I-League would look to ruffle some feathers and cause big upsets.
TRAU open their campaign against defending champions Chennai City FC away from home but their most anticipated match is against city neighbours NEROCA FC - later in the competition.
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