Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan, table toppers by a distance, go into an intriguing I-League clash against former champions Aizawl FC at the Kalyani Municipal Corporation stadium on Tuesday in a game which could have contrasting implications for both sides.
Following Quess East Bengal’s win over the Snow Leopards in Srinagar, the equation boils down to a simple one for the Mariners now. A win will ensure their second I-League title in five years whereas anything other than a win will keep the title race alive.
Much has changed since these two met in the league opener, which had resulted in a dour goalless draw at the Rajiv Gandhi stadium in Aizawl, over three months back. The fact that Bagan will come closer to their second I-League title with a win on Tuesday and Aizawl are fighting relegation at the business end of the league, underlines the different trajectories the two clubs’ fortunes took, post that opener.
It will certainly not be as easy as it looks on paper for Bagan, if current form is any indication. Aizawl go into the Kalyani game having picked up eight points from their last five games including wins against Quess East Bengal, Tiddim Road Athletic Union FC and having creditably defending champions Chennai City FC and Real Kashmir FC away from home.
That confidence will also somewhat stem from the form of Rochharzela, their dynamic homegrown number seven. The 21-year old attacking midfielder has scored six times this season, including three in the last two, and is currently the highest Indian goal-scorer in the league. The visitors will look to rally around him, if they have to get that ‘something out of it’.
Bagan gaffer Kibu Vicuna was understandably calm before the game, “We respect Aizawl and are aware of the form they are bringing in to the game tomorrow. They have very good players and fight all the way through. We must guard against complacency and look to play to our strengths. If we do that, we believe we could achieve our objectives.”
Refusing to be drawn towards talk of title possibilities, the Spaniard said, “We are not too bothered about all the talk. We know that if we play to our best, it will come today or tomorrow.”
The hosts are on a record-breaking 13-game unbeaten run and have not done too many things wrong over the past 12-weeks. Their Spanish trio of Fran Gonzalez, Fran Morante and Joseba Beitia have been delivering game after game and Senegalese striker Papa Diawara has scored in eight games on the trot.
What will make Aizawl’s task even more daunting apart from the delirious home-fans who have smelled blood, will be the fact that Bagan also has the strongest defence in the league, having conceded just 13 in their 15 games so far.
Whether Bagan will secure the title on Tuesday will depend hugely on how Real Kashmir fare against Quess East Bengal on Monday.
Neroca FC face tough test
Relegation-threatened Neroca FC host second-placed Punjab FC in the I-League in Imphal on Tuesday.
With just five games to go for Neroca this season, they find themselves in the relegation zone, a point adrift of Aizawl on ninth who have a game in hand.
The reverse fixture in Ludhiana saw Neroca race to a 2-0 lead before veteran Dipanda Dicka’’s hat-trick settled the tie for the hosts with three points. Dicka is one goal away from his 50th I-League goal.
The Orange brigade have a tricky run of fixtures ahead that could turn precarious should they fail to get a result against Punjab.
Gift Raikhan’’s side will host defending champions Chennai City next before travelling to northeast rivals Aizawl – a crucial fixture for either side in their quest for survival. Then, East Bengal away and Churchill Brothers at home will wrap up Neroca’’s campaign.
Speaking ahead of the match, Raikan said, “The relegation battle is getting intense, especially with the end of the season knocking on the door.
“It’’s not about Punjab, or Churchill, or East Bengal. It’’s about approaching the games as they come and winning because one result can make a lot of difference.
“We are prepared and with three points at home tomorrow, we will be in a good place going forward.”
Punjab, on the other hand, have registered just one win in their previous five outings. The lacklustre run for the Ludhiana outfit sees them just three points clear of Chennai in eighth place in what has been a waterlogged middle stack.
Givson Singh’’s stoppage-time penalty denied Punjab all three points against Indian Arrows in Mumbai, a result which left head coach Yan Law thoroughly frustrated.