After last weekend’s match between Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan where both played a game that previously could not be played due to continental commitments, the I-League returns a gap of three weeks and in full force.
Bengaluru FC might have disrupted the Indian football scene on their entry three years ago but talk about marquee fixtures in the history of the sport in India and only one particular match-up comes to mind: the Kolkata derby.
This year it’s no different as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal face off against each other in an absolute pressure cooker situation. If the pressure of beating their eternal rivals wasn’t enough, both the teams are neck-and-neck in the title race and cannot afford a slip-up at this stage of the season. Will both teams play to win or to avoid a loss?
That game will be preceded by another belter: that of Aizawl going up against Bengaluru. If you had asked a neutral with an understanding of Indian football prior to the start of the season, they would have told you that it would be a match between a title-chasing side against a struggling one.
They would have been right, except for the fact that the roles have been remarkably reversed, with Aizawl chasing what would be a historic and a remarkable triumph. BFC on the other hand have had a topsy-turvy I-League season and are closer to bottom-placed Mumbai than they are to the leaders.
Here are some points to ponder before the start of the game:
- What must be going through Trevor Morgan’s mind? After the 3-1 win over Bengaluru, the Lal Holud had the easiest run-in of all the title-chasing teams, with Bagan the only top half team that East Bengal had to play. Two identical 2-1 losses to Churchill Brothers and Chennai City FC later, their season is on the verge of unravelling. Lose against their fierce rivals and it could be 13 years without a league title for East Bengal.
- For Morgan, Robin Singh and Nikhil Poojary are doubts but Sanjoy Sen has multiple injury problems and could be forced to field several replacements on Sunday. Azharuddin Mallick will continue as the Under-22 player given that both Subhashish Bose and Raynier Fernandes are ruled out. Pronay Halder and Shilton Paul are absent as well.
- Bagan didn’t field the strongest teams against Abahani in their mid-week AFC Cup match in a strong indication of the Green-and-Maroon’s priorities. Sen has made no secret of the fact that they would dearly love to regain the league title. However, Bagan are in the strange situation of being the only Indian team in contention for both the league and the continental titles. How Sen deals with this problem will be interesting to watch.
- It will be a case of the two highest-scoring attacks going up against each other. For East Bengal, Wedson Anselme and Willis Plaza are almost sure of starting the match and Aussie Chris Payne could join them. Having started Jeje Lalpekhlua mid-week, Sen may pick Balwant Singh to partner Darryl Duffy up front. Both sets of defenders will have their work cut out for them.
- Aizawl are top of the league and roaring. They suffered a minor blip prior to the international break letting a lead slip to draw 2-2 against Minerva Punjab. Khalid Jamil’s side must keep their chins up if they are to take at least a point off Bengaluru but those two dropped points in Ludhiana could prove to be crucial in context of the final standings. Nonetheless, the men from Mizoram have four games left, none of which is easy and all eyes will be on the Kolkata derby.
- Bengaluru have given up the chase in the league, as evidenced by Albert Roca putting out a youthful team which got beat 3-0 by Bagan last weekend. They will be going full tilt towards securing an eventful run in the AFC Cup but will also want to qualify for next season’s competition. A strong finish in the league, easier said than done, could propel them towards fourth spot and above.
- Shillong Lajong, in fourth have played a young team throughout this season and will be pleased with what they’ve achieved so far. They are in fourth and will hope to consolidate that against DSK, who stopped their victorious run with a 2-1 win in Shillong earlier on in the season. Shivajians are in turmoil with reports of unpaid salaries but hammered five past Mumbai last time around and look to be finally making a mark in their second season in the I-League.
- Churchill have been unstoppable since Derrick Pereira took over as manager and have wins over East Bengal and Mohun Bagan to boot. Now up in sixth, they could go above Bengaluru if they beat Mumbai who have a new coach in Oscar Bruzon. The team from the financial capital will be glad to put the Santosh Kashyap saga behind them and are dead last and must catch Churchill, six points ahead of them if they are to avoid relegation.
- Life has been tough for both Minerva Punjab and Chennai City since they started life in the I-League this year. Minerva, the home team up against their fellow newcomers did well to take a point off Aizawl in their previous encounter but the team from the South will have their tails up after beating EB 2-1 in Chennai previously. Goal scoring has been a problem for both sides and with their 0-0 draw on the opening day of the season, it could be a repeat in Ludhiana on Saturday.