This season, if it is to be the very last I-League season in its current format, has reinforced the abilities of Indian football to spring a surprise or two. If Bengaluru FC’s run to the AFC Cup was India’s highlight reel last year, Aizawl FC are sowing a tale or two themselves in 2017.
Yet, when the season commenced, there was a nagging suspicion that there was a fair amount of weariness in the ecosystem. The I-League by now had become so short on legs that it could have been renamed “Stumpy” and had been starved of its deserved share of Bollywood and cricket paraphernalia but managed to cater to its local fanbases, some of which fell away with the departure of three Goan clubs.
The addition of two corporate teams failed to shake the unmistakable feeling that the last rites were being read and that roadmaps for a merged league structure, an absolute necessity for a developing nation mind you, were prepared which did not involve the majority of teams from the I-League.
The question that remained, would it be another Bengaluru or Mohun Bagan triumph? Would East Bengal finally break the jinx this year? Most of the season went to script with the law of averages catching up with BFC, except for one tiny glitch in the Matrix...
The Aizawl fairytale
In the twenty years of the National Football League (1996-’2007) and the I-League (2007-present), the highest that a team from the Northeast had finished was third, Royal Wahingdoh in the 2014-’15 season.
Wahingdoh were soon pulled from the I-League due to a cited “lack of vision” from the top. Aizawl, relegated last year had put in some noteworthy but inconsistent performances and were reinstated this season to expand the existing league to ten.
It shouldn’t have mattered if Mumbai FC had not decided that seven years of battling relegation under Khalid Jamil was enough. The I-League’s longest serving coach, what would he do with the men from the hills? Would he drag them to mid-table mediocrity, a tag that had been firmly plastered on him?
The two qualities that Jamil did bring to the table were doggedness in defence and late-game preparedness, a curious addendum to the so-many latent qualities that Aizawl possessed. Their chase of something unprecedented has been relentless as they have gone ten rounds with the behemoth that is Mohun Bagan, leaving East Bengal fatally wounded and in the dust.
Their future is uncertain but one thing is for sure, they will beat Wahingdoh’s record and cannot finish below second. A win by two goals or more on the day will give the Mizos the title, a one-goal win will leave them needing a point at Shillong Lajong on the last matchday to be absolutely certain of the championship.
A draw for Bagan will leave the outcome in their own hands, as they have to only match to better Aizawl’s result on the last day. A win will hand Bagan the title outright, as their 3-2 win at home earlier in the season gives them the edge on a head-to-head basis.
Effective but not lethal Mohun Bagan
The Mariners have continued with the trend of jettisoning any continental aspirations to chase success at a domestic level, and will be aiming for a fifth national title which would put them joint top with Dempo. Having earned a third consecutive finish in the top two, they have lost only once in the league and have conceded only 10 goals, keeping a league high 10 clean sheets.
That being said, Bagan haven’t exactly set the league on fire in their away games, winning one and drawing five out of seven, only scoring five times in the process. The form of Sony Norde and Katsumi Yusa has been pivotal for Bagan, bailing them out on several occasions in the recent few weeks.
One cannot deny their form after the international break though and compare it to that of their city rivals. While the Green-and-Maroons have beaten Bengaluru, East Bengal and Minerva Punjab winning 10 out of a possible 12 points in their last four, the Lal Holud have lost their last four, their coach and have slipped from first to third and cannot climb higher but can finish as low as fifth.
They are by far the most well-rounded outfit this season as the spine of Debjit Majumder, Anas Edathodika, Eduardo Ferreira, Yusa, Sehnaj Singh, Norde and Darryl Duffy haven’t been blistering but quietly effective.
Smart money would be on Sanjoy Sen setting his team up on the counter and try to nab an early lead while sitting back later on. It is Aizawl, who must do the huffing and puffing if they are to pull off the improbable from a few months back.
Seven teams have visited the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Maulpui this season and only one, Bengaluru FC have escaped with a 1-1 draw. So will Bagan become victim number seven in a modern day fairytale or will they deny the romantics to claim a title that they, on the balance of this season’s events, have deserved as much as the hilly disrupters?
Irrespective of the result, it remains an afternoon to look forward to as the most talked about penultimate round match in years plays itself out on Saturday.
Hilly title decider as the climax? Count me in.