‘They will always have last season.’

As Aizawl FC took the field against East Bengal for their first match of the I-League 2017-’18 season on Tuesday, the one thing on everyone’s minds was that this team was not the Aizawl that won the title. And they were right.

A look at the Aizawl team that took on Shillong Lajong in April shows just how much has changed.

  • Albino Gomes, the goalkeeper (Delhi Dynamos)
  • Lalram Chullova (East Bengal)
  • Zohmingliana ‘Zotea’ Ralte (Bengaluru FC)
  • Lalruatthara (Kerala Blasters)
  • Brandon Vanlalremdika (East Bengal)
  • Mahmoud Al Amna (East Bengal)
  • V Laltanpuia - still Aizawl
  • Laldanmawia Ralte (East Bengal)
  • Kamo Bayi (Gokulam)
  • Jayesh Rane (ATK)
  • Kingsley Eze Obumneme (Mohun Bagan)

Others who have left: Ashutosh Mehta (ATK) and coach Khalid Jamil, the man who played a huge role in scripting Aizawl FC’s success story.

Just one player from that starting XI – Laltanpuia – is still with Aizawl. Some might say that winning the title was perhaps a curse but it is a sign of the times that we live in. You get a better offer, you leave but a mass exodus such as this can really hurt a club.

East Bengal hired as many as four former Aizawl FC players — Lalram Chullova, Laldanmawia Ralte, Brandon Vanlalremdika and Mahmoud Al Amna — in addition to Jamil.

The move was supposed to do two things – elevate East Bengal and cripple Aizawl. And for most of the first half, which was played on a terrible surface, the red and gold brigade seemed to have got their wish.

The Mizoram club’s smooth style from last season was gone, instead it had a combative, rough edge to it. The loss of playmaker Mahmoud Al Amna would have no doubt contributed to this change but still the champions were looking very much like the underdogs.

East Bengal just seemed to have the better quality on the pitch. They had the better chances and in general, dominated play. Willis Plaza had three great opportunities in the first half – twice he messed it up but once, his shot from 22 yards out was denied by the post.

It was only around the half-time mark that Aizawl got their first real chance but Alfred Jaryan sent the header wide. The scoreline read 0-0 at half time but the champions were breathing harder. Still, they had hung in there.

East Bengal finally broke through after Eduardo Ferreira scored off a corner. Katsumi Yusa’s corner-kick was flicked on by Brandon Vanlalremdika into the former Mohun Bagan defender’s path who seemed to just run into the ball. It rifled into the bar and into the goal.

Six minutes later, Paul was deceived by a major deflection off Katsumi Yusa. The lead was doubled and for many that would have been it.

Still, this is where Aizawl’s spirit shone through. They refused to back down. They refused to give up. They ran, they clattered into the East Bengal players and they harried them into making mistakes.

Two minutes after East Bengal’s second goal, William Lalnufela headed in the ball to get one back for Aizawl.

One back... one to go.

Despite the goal, East Bengal tried to go about their business calmly. They tried to keep the ball and launch the odd attack. But Aizawl refused to back down – five of their players were yellow-carded in the match – but this match was about making a statement.

Deep into injury time (90 + 6’), Lalthathanga Khawlring’s flag-kick triggered a goalmouth melee and Eduardo failed to clear the ball in front of him. Lalnufela pounced on the ball and his left-footer found the back of the net.

It was a close escape. The final result read 2-2 but for coach Paulo Menezes and his team, the scoreline was worth it’s weight in gold. They had shown that even without most of their players from last season, they were still worthy rivals. The spirit that earned the love and respect of the opposition teams last season had still not left the building.

Indeed, as the match ended, the initial thought had changed a little.

‘They will always have have last season... but that doesn’t mean they are finished.’