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The I-League and its unlikely title race

The I-League and its unlikely title race
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By

Sounak Mullick

Published: 19 Feb 2019 12:10 PM GMT
The I-League has given us four different winners in the past five years, which is why the tournament is so unpredictable, exciting, as well as competitive. In the last season, four teams were in contention for the title till the last match day. Each of the teams kicked off their last fixture simultaneously at the respective venues at the same time, with Minerva Punjab FC having the last laugh. We are geared up for yet another mouth-watering finish to the I-League season. But unlike the previous year, this will likely to be a three horse race to the championship. Debutants Real Kashmir FC, a regular underachiever in the league, Chennai City FC and an old gun, East Bengal will battle it out in the business end of the league to lay hands on the coveted I-League trophy. At the present moment, Chennai City FC has the best shot at the title, a win in the remaining three matches will ensure their maiden I-League title while the chances of the other two teams depend on the result when they face off each other in Kashmir later this month. The inclusion of Kashmir in the league, however, has definitely initiated some ugly conversations in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. Where, a little more than a year back, people praised the prowess of the club when it qualified from the Second Division League, the same football-loving crowd now have incessantly called for boycotts of matches held in Kashmir- something Minerva Punjab actually did on the day of the fixture. With aspersions already cast over whether or not this will the last year for the I-League, an interesting couple of days are surely ahead. We will also wait to see whether the league suffers as a result of diplomatic tensions currently prevalent in the Valley

AIMING FOR A FIRST IN MORE THAN 15 YEARS

East Bengal has flourished this season after corporate giants QUESS Corp Ltd took charge of the daily affairs. Digging deep into the pockets, they recited top quality players to strengthen their squad, which without a doubt has paid so far. 2018 World Cupper Johnny Acosta was the first of many major signings made by the Kolkata giants. The ‘Derby Double’ over arch-rivals Mohun Bagan was a delight for the team which is oozing out confidence at present, backed by its passionate supporters who gather in large number in each of their home matches. After a four-match winning streak, they finally lost two points against Churchill Brothers FC at home last Sunday. The ‘red and gold’ brigade is at the
second spot in the points table with 32 points from 16 matches.
With just one home match left, Alejandro’s men will hit the road in the final three games which start with the crucial away tie against third-placed Real Kashmir FC on February 28, the venue of which is yet to be decided. Even if they manage to win their remaining matches, they will hope that Chennai City FC drop points to clear their road to the championship, their first silverware in more than 15 years!

THE SURPRISE PACKAGE

After low lying eighth-place finishes in the past two seasons, the bosses of Chennai City FC put their faith on Singaporean coach Akbar Nawas to script a turnaround. The tactician, with his limited resources, handpicked the best lot of players and sprinkled a Spanish flavour to create an unstoppable force in Indian football. Pedro Manzi, Nestor Gordillo and Sandro Rodriguez introduced tiki-taka in Indian football for the first time, while Indian lads also joined the party. The trio has scored 32 out of the 40 goals that the team has scored so far this season, which clearly shows the impact they have made.
After 17 rounds, Chennai City FC is standing firm in the pole position with 37 points
, technically they are sniffing the I-League title. A win in each of their remaining three matches will be enough for them to clinch the championship. They will host Mohun Bagan in their last home match this weekend, followed by a tough away tie against Churchill Brothers FC.

VOLLEY FROM THE VALLEY

Real Kashmir FC became the first Indian team to qualify for the I-League from the Jammu and Kashmir region after winning the 2nd division I-League last year. Scottish gaffer David Robertson assembled an energetic bunch of players, including his son Mason and prepared a team which was ‘built for the kill.’ After a shaky start to the season, the ‘Snow Leopards’ found their winning touch and there for no looking back for them. As far as the points table is concerned, the debutants have collected
32 points so far from 16 matches but are placed at the third spot
because East Bengal has a superior goal difference. The clash between these two teams will be a crucial tie, with the team winning will take a giant leap towards the I-League title, while the loser will fall behind. A stalemate in the fixture will help Chennai City FC increase its lead at the top. So, there is everything to play for! There has been a lot of confusion regarding home matches in Srinagar, due to unfavourable climatic conditions as well as the recent terrorist attack on the Indian Army a few days ago. Previously, the match between East Bengal and Real Kashmir FC was postponed. Recently, Minerva Punjab FC also refused to travel to the valley owing to security concerns and East Bengal is also unlikely to pay a visit. These two clubs have taken steps so that the matches can be shifted to another venue, but the AIFF hasn't given a reply yet. https://twitter.com/realkashmirfc/status/1097445963931807744?s=19 This might well be the last I-League season, with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in plans to name the Indian Super League as the top tier league. Although a few of the I-League teams might shift to the cash-rich league, the I-League may be recognised as the second string competition in the Indian domestic circuit. Whatever the outcome may be, this will be a season to remember.
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