The scenarios heading into a frantic final day in the I-League made for some fascinating reading.
A North Indian club had not won the league title since JCT Phagwara did it in the first ever National Football League season of the 1996.
Mohun Bagan could have tied Dempo for most national league titles, five. They, however, had only one I-League title to their name so far.
East Bengal had not won the national league title since 2004. That was in the NFL era. The number of I-League titles they had? Zero.
Neroca had a chance to become only the second club from the Northeast to win the I-League, emulating Aizawl FC’s giant-killing efforts from the previous season.
Four teams, three games, two points between them, one title. As it turned out, it was a day for Bhangra beats and bragging rights in Panchkula, with Minerva Punjab emerging champions.
The fact that the title race went down to the last day was exciting and productive for the league but it was an indicator of a deeper malaise: more than one team had failed to land a decisive blow on their rivals in an under-strength league.
This season of the I-League was always going to be different from all the previous ones. While the preceding domestic seasons featured the I-League after the completion of the Indian Super League, the two were held simultaneously this year and the poorer cousin was always going to lose out on the cream of the Indian talent.
In Stephen Constantine’s recent Indian squad for the final AFC Asian Cup qualifier against Kyrgyz Republic, only five of the 32-strong squad were from the I-League.
An increase in the number of foreigners was supposed to play into the hands of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, who were desperate after Aizawl had managed a stunning title victory last season. With the exit of fellow powerhouses Bengaluru FC, the league was there for the taking.
If only it were that easy with the two Kolkata clubs (it never is).
Without the best local footballers, it always was going to go down to the foreign players and their quality (or lack of). Those who brought smart would finish higher (Minerva, Neroca) while those who bought haphazardly were also going to struggle (Churchill Brothers).
East Bengal were possibly the favourites going into the season with a strong Indian core in Arnab Mondal, Lalramchullova, Mohammed Rafique, Laldanmawia Ralte, Cavin Lobo and Nikhil Poojari supporting Eduardo Ferreira, Mahmoud Al-Amna, Katsumi Yusa and Charles D’Souza.
Khalid Jamil, Aizawl’s title winning coach was also drafted in and while his ‘score-and-stall’ tactics might have worked with the underdogs, his team more often than not, failed to grab the game by the scruff of the neck – something they should have done more often than not given the quality present in the outfit.
With East Bengal, opposition teams would sit back and soak up the pressure, hitting them on the counter, negating Jamil’s dreary approaches to games, second halves in particular. East Bengal threw away 12 points from winning positions, easily a league high and dropped points against Aizawl, Neroca, Churchill Brothers and Gokulam in the last 15 minutes of games.
Willis Plaza, in particular, under-performed as East Bengal failed to show up in the two Kolkata derbies, having been overwhelming favourites for both. Plaza was released and his replacement Dudu scored eight in as many matches, but the damage had been done for the Red-and-Golds.
The ex-Mumbai FC coach brought his underdog approach to a big team, a wrong plan given the history of the combustible-ness within the club. Instead of dominating teams, too much respect was afforded to smaller teams and they took full advantage of Jamil’s insecurities, pouncing on any defensive lapses. A total of eight wins out of 18 and only three in their last 10 was a poor return.
Minerva and Neroca played it smart with their recruitment strategy and execution on the pitch. If one stat sums up Minerva’s campaign, it is this: between the four of them, Kassim Aidara, William Opoku, Chencho Gyeltshen and Guy Eric Dano played all 18 matches for the Champions.
Reliable and cohesive.
Coach Wanghem Khogen Singh dispensed with the passing niceties. Minerva averaged the least number of passes in the league but knew exactly how to play in a league where the quality of football was low. Hoick it long and go route one.
Off-pitch troubles threatened to derail their title challenge but with Chencho as their preferred outlet, Minerva would swarm opponents with their pace and relentless attacks. With seven goals and six assists, the Bhutanese was their main player.
For I-League’s Manipuri debutants Neroca, Aryn Williams, Varney Kallon, Fabien Vorbe and Felix Chidi were solid in their contributions and Gift Raikhan’s side kept nine clean sheets in all. They scored the lowest number of the goals in the top five (20) but also conceded a league lowest 13 and deserved their second place finish. Raikhan’s tactical inflexibility may have cost them the two games against Minerva but he and Neroca nonetheless deserve credit for a second placed finish in their debut top-flight season.
The less said about Bagan, the better. Sony Norde and Sanjoy Sen, two of the most pivotal figures of the club left midway but it was a disaster throughout as points were dropped to Shillong Lajong, Neroca, Indian Arrows, Chennai City, Minerva and Gokulam at home.
True, Sen did lose his Indian core to the ISL but even with the replacements that he had, the 2014-15 title winning coach looked out of his depth. Two Kolkata derby wins and a late flurry under Sen’s successor, Shankarlal Chakraborty, couldn’t hide the cracks as the club had blown their chances early in the season.
Like Bagan, Lajong and Aizawl struggled, having lost the majority of their players from last season while Gokulam, Chennai City and Churchill were embroiled in the relegation battle. The Indian Arrows had a few positive results but instead of lauding them for their efforts in this league, the real question is whether any of the opponents that had defeated the Under-17 World Cup team in their last two years together, have performed any worse in the I-League? One suspects not.
The entertainment quotient of the I-League was high this time around, but the very real question of the future of the league remains, especially after the standard of football witnessed. For a product abandoned by all stakeholders barring the clubs and spectators, it has done well for itself once again.
But the reality is that the clock is ticking down slowly and the knives are being sharpened, as another season finishes.