Five things learnt from the Round One of the I-League
The Hero I-League finally kicked-off after staving off numerous body blows that had rocked the country’s premier football league in pre-season, when it’s slightly well-off rival was hogging all the little limelight the beautiful game attracts in India. Iconic clubs like Pune FC and Royal Wahingdoh refrained from participating in the I-League’s latest edition, while last season’s debutants too found it wiser to shut up shop.
Despite all the downturns, the Hero I-League’s 2016 season kicked off with nine teams, the lowest ever number since its inception, a little less than a decade ago. For all its off-field woes, the football on the pitch didn’t really disappoint. Champions Mohun Bagan began their title defense in style as Cornell Glen and Balwant Singh inspired the Mariners to a 3-1 win over debutants Aizawl FC. Fellow title contenders Bengaluru FC and East Bengal were both victors in Goa against Salgaocar and Sporting clube de Goa respectively, while a revamped Mumbai FC side came away with a credible point from Shillong post a goalless draw with Thangboi Singto’s Shillong Lajong.
As the dust settles on the opening week of the action in the Hero I-League, we take a look at the five things that we learnt from Round One of the Hero I-League
- Title Contenders justify tag
Champions Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC were consensually identified as contenders for the I-League crown at the start of the season and the trio fancied for a title tilt, justified the tag of title contenders with solid wins in their respective opening encounters. Defending Champions Mohun Bagan ran out 3-1 winners over Aizawl FC with new signing Cornell Glen bagging a brace sandwiching Balwant Singh’s strike, that capped off a truly brilliant performance from the Indian striker.
At the same time, Bengaluru FC passed a sterner test in Goa against Salgaocar as Sunil Chhetri’s winner secured a 2-1 win for Ashley Westwood’s men. Sunday saw Ranti Martins lead a East Bengal rally that helped the Red & Golds to register a 3-1 win against Sporting Club de Goa after falling behind to an Odafa opener.
The wins put the trio at the summit of the I-League straightaway and their performances suggested that it would take some doing from the teams below them to dislodge these three teams from the top of the I-League table.
- Seasoned predators portray their instincts
The names Ranti Martins, Cornel Glenn and Odafa Okolie are synonymous to goals in Indian Football. These three seasoned predators have scored a mammoth 442 goals among them in Indian Football and on the weekend, they once again proved why there aren’t any better go-to men for scoring goals in India’s top flight.
The highest scorer in I-League history, Ranti Martins once again showcased his goal scoring prowess as his brace helped East Bengal turn a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 win. The Sporting defense found Ranti too hot to handle as he was a constant menace in the Sporting box.
Cornell Glen who scored 16 times for Shillong Lajong last term, made his Mohun Bagan debut in style as his brace powered Mohun Bagan past newly promoted Aizawl FC.
Though in a losing cause, Odafa Okolie showed just how important he is for Sporting when his 11th minute opener had East Bengal in trouble till the hour mark. It is incredible to see these great goal scorers bag a handful of goals year in year out. Surely the I-League would be a lot dull without them.
- Curtailed yet competitive
Despite being reduced to just nine teams, the first week of the Hero I-League showed that the league remains to be highly competitive. All the four games played on the weekend weren’t exactly one way traffic and all the teams which went down either took the lead or drew level with their conquerors at some point in the game.
The game between Shillong Lajong and Mumbai FC was always on a knife edge, and Lajong had a goal ruled out for offside, before Mumbai struck the woodwork. Mohun Bagan who had the easiest of time also had to respond to being pegged back at 1-1 by Aizawl. It was a similar story with Bengaluru FC who regained the lead through Sunil Chhetri’s goal.
In the most dramatic game of the week, East Bengal had to come from a goal down to beat Sporting Goa 3-1 and the comeback started as late as the 61st minute when Ranti Martins drew the Kolkata side level before Jairu’s 78th minute strike put East Bengal in front just minutes before Ranti Martins scored again to wrap up the points.
- Mumbai FC – The Masters of the Draw
It was a game on the road for Mumbai FC to start their I-League campaign against Shillong Lajong. The intense game in the Meghalaya capital ended all-square with neither team able to make a breakthrough. However for Khalid Jamil and company, there was little novelty in the outcome as it was Mumbai FC’s sixth consecutive draw on the road in the I-League.
The six draws have come at places like the Bengaluru, Kolkata, Goa and Shillong, where most teams would bite your hands off if you offered them a point. If one looks at Mumbai FC’s last ten games, seven of those have ended in share of spoils. That’s the way they roll and it is safe to say that Khalid Jamil and his Mumbai side are the ‘Masters of the Draw’.
However, it may not be a bad thing at all as their record at Cooperage isn’t the most welcoming for teams making the trip there with Mumbai FC tasting defeat only twice since returning to Mumbai’s iconic stadium. So if Mumbai FC can continue to chip away points away from home, they may just be the best bet to upset the odds and mount a serious title challenge this time out.
- Misery continues for Goan clubs in the I-League
Goa was a bastion of Indian Football. With seven league titles, five Federation Cup titles and four Durand Cup titles shared among the Goan clubs, Goan football was at the pinnacle of Indian football for a long time.
Sadly though, that era seems to be coming to an end as Goa’s participation in the I-League has been reduced to just two teams after Dempo’s relegation to the 2nd Division I-League last time around and the dire state of the two remaining clubs, Salgaocar and Sporting Club de Goa, who narrowly avoided the drop in 2015.
Both these Goan clubs made a losing start to the 2016 I-League campaign with both Salgaocar and Sporting losing at home. The Goan clubs have lost the swagger and aren’t able to attract the very best talent in the country, that has found greener pastures elsewhere. For Salgaocar and Sporting, this seems to be yet another season wherein they will be flirting with danger as Goan football reaches its lowermost point till date.
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