The I-League is over for the season 2017-’18 and after a final day where four teams could have won the title, Minerva Punjab scampered home by beating Churchill Brothers 1-0 and becoming the first team since JCT Phagwara in 1996 to win a national league title.
On to our team of the season, the rules are that we’ve picked no more than four foreigners on the pitch, with one of Asian origin, with the additional restriction that the player in question must have played at least half the games, ie nine.
Lalit Thapa – Neroca
The goalkeeping position was one of the toughest to select, not due to an excess of contenders but the exact opposite. Goalkeeping standards haven’t been the greatest in the league this season, and no one has come close to matching Albino Gomes and Debjit Majumder’s exploits from last season.
Lalit Thapa, a two-time I-League winner, came close to making it three in Neroca’s debut season but just about missed out, finishing second. In all, the 33-year-old started 10 games, keeping five clean sheets as the Manipuri club boasted the best defence in the I-League.
Thapa boasted the highest save percentage in the league, saving 83% of his shots on goal and conceded only six goals in his 887 minutes on the pitch, also the best in the league for the goals conceded to minutes played ratio.
Sanjeev Stalin – Indian Arrows
There were plenty of contenders for this slot, including Minerva’s Abhishek Ambekar and Mohun Bagan’s Ricky Lallawmawma. But Stalin’s contribution deserves to be measured in not just numbers, but efficiency and the circumstances in which they were achieved.
Often playing behind Aniket Jadhav on the left, not a big fan of tracking back, Stalin was forced to operate as a quasi-centre back at times, tucking in while Boris Thangjam on the other flank was given a free run.
Stalin is described as the most intelligent member of this Arrows team and the Bangalore lad displayed plenty of that, racking up 1,499 minutes, averaging 39 completed passes per game, the highest among left-backs. The 17-year-old completed 2.3 dribbles, more than any other left-back barring Chennai City’s Edwin Sydney Vanspaul and won 68% of his tackles, besides being Arrows’ designated set-piece taker.
Lalramchullova – East Bengal
The 22-year-old couldn’t quite his replicate his form from his Aizawl days but he was one of East Bengal’s more reliable defenders this season as Khalid Jamil’s men finished fourth.
The diminutive right-back had four assists to his name, more than any other defender in the league and averaged 2.5 passes into the box every game. He also averaged 4.1 tackles per game with a success rate of 82%.
Guy Eric Dano – Minerva Punjab
The first of our players from the champions, the 28-year-old from Ivory Coast played every game for his team. He played 1,676 minutes in all, even scoring a goal.
Dano managed to complete 86% of his passes, winning 71% of his challenges as Minerva kept seven clean sheets during his vigil on the pitch. He also won 86% of his tackles, and proved to be a shrewd acquisition for the Warriors from Punjab.
Rana Gharami – Mohun Bagan
Due to the fact that we can only pick four foreign players, we decided to partner an Indian with Guy Dano at the heart of defence. There weren’t many to choose from but Anwar Ali from the Indian Arrows and Lalchawnkima from Aizawl deserve honourable mentions here.
Bagan boasted the second-meanest defence in the league as Kingsley Obumneme and Gharami were instrumental in letting in only 14 goals. The 27-year-old won 75% of his challenges and completed 80% of his passes, as he kept it neat and tidy in defence.
Kassim Aidara – Minerva Punjab
Aidara was another one who played all of his games for the eventual champions, clocking up 1,769 minutes for Minerva.
The 30-year-old from France was immense in his contribution as he scored two goals from defensive midfield. Aidara bossed the midfield, winning 65% of his aerial challenges in the middle of the park while averaging four tackles per 90 minutes.
Arjun Jayaraj – Gokulam
Minerva’s anchorman is joined by Gokulam’s, as the 22-year-old Arjun Jayaraj has been one of the finds of the season for the Kerala-based outfit in their debut season.
Jayaraj was late but useful addition to Bino George’s squad as he went on to play 1,114 minutes for Gokulam. Jayaraj also managed a goal and an assist in his first season in the I-League. He also completed 61% of his dribbles as he sat deep in Gokulam’s midfield but wasn’t afraid to pull the strings.
Chencho Gyeltshen – Minerva Punjab
He had to be there, didn’t he? The man who epitomised Minerva’s title charge this season is none other than their Bhutanese dragon, Chencho Gyeltshen.
‘CG7’ led the league for goals plus assists this season, as he managed seven strikes and eight assists for the Punjabi team. He was a terror to defences throughout the league and wing-backs didn’t fancy coming up against him. Also, Minerva’s focal point in their counter-attacks.
Who would have seen this coming when Minerva signed Gyeltshen? In all fairness, the hat-trick in the pre-season friendly against Bengaluru FC should have served as a warning. A close second for our Player of the Season but NOT QUITE.
Laldanmawia Ralte – East Bengal
The 25-year-old was another player who didn’t quite perform to his last season’s standards but nonetheless was a consistent performer in a shaky season for East Bengal.
Playing for the second season under Khalid Jamil, Dan Mawia had a credible three goals and two assists to his name. The speedy Mizo winger averaged 1.1 key passes every game and was combative on the flanks, winning 2.4 tackles every 90 minutes.
Michael Soosairaj – Chennai City
Not only was Soosairaj Chennai City’s best player and the league’s top Indian performer, he has every right to earn the I-League’s Player of the Season award. The 23-year-old CCFC captain managed three goals and three assists, but before you question us for putting him above Chencho, check out his staggering statistics.
‘Soosai’ led the league for dribbles, attacking challenges, ground challenges, fouls suffered and was third for overall challenges, fourth for passes into the box, 10th for key passes, sixth for shots on target.
A massive, scintillating contribution which single-handedly ensured that Chennai City didn’t get relegated and rightfully The Field’s I-League Player of the Season.
Asier Dipanda Dicka – Mohun Bagan
There was a case for this slot going to East Bengal striker Dudu after the Nigerian solved the Red-and-Golds striking worries in the second half of the season.
For the second season running, however, it was Cameroonian Asier Dipanda Dicka who ended up as the league’s top scorer, with 13 goals. The ex-Shillong Lajong man scored 46.4% of his team’s goals, including a sweet volley in Bagan’s 2-0 derby win East Bengal.
Coach – Wangkhem Khogen Singh
The former Air India right-back became the first coach from the Northeast and Manipur to win a national league title. Gift Raikhan, also from Manipur, did well to guide his team to second in Neroca’s debut season but Khogen Singh built a sturdy team, one which was solid at the back and adventurous at the front. They weren’t aesthetically pleasing, but Khogen Singh set his team up according to the quality of the league and consequently, reaped rich rewards.
Honourable mentions: Bali Gagandeep (Minerva), Masih Saighani (Aizawl), Anwar Ali (Indian Arrows), Samuel Lalmuanpuia (Shillong Lajong), William Opoku (Minerva), Aryn Williams (Neroca).