There has been hardly any promotion, but Indian football’s top most domestic competition returns to action this weekend.
It will be the 18th season of the Indian top flight, but its build up has been overshadowed by the deadlock between AIFF’s commercial partners IMG-Reliance and the clubs, last minute withdrawal and disbandment of teams, and the absence of some of the best India internationals who are still training with IMG-R.
To make matters worse, there will be no live telecast also on the opening weekend.
But for the 13 teams in action, the I-League remains the most important competition and in round one, everybody starts as equals, starting from holders Churchill Brothers to debutants Rangdajied United and Bengaluru FC.
For the first time in the combined history of the former National Football League and I-League, there are odd number of teams participating. Thus, in every round, at least one club will get a breather.
For the opening round, it’s AFC Cup quarter-finalists East Bengal who will not be involved, and thus get some additional time to prepare for their second leg against Indonesia’s Semen Padang.
The I-League may be a fading brand, but as a continuation from last season, it keeps getting quality imports with a former World Cupper, EPL player, current Equatorial Guinea international to name a few, all being in action.
The rule of allowing four foreigners in the starting eleven will also see the influence of old and new foreigners increase while it could act as a death-knell for Indian strikers.
The opening weekend gives a chance for each of the 12 teams to get the points on board right from match one. Six clubs have new coaches at the helm and each of them would be eager for a winning start.
Whether it’s to mount a title challenge, get the first points in a bid for survival, or playing the first game in the top flight after four years like for Mohammedan Sporting, the first game of the season is filled with optimism.
The marathon I-League is here and round one should be as interesting as the remaining 25.
Saturday: Mohammedan Sporting vs Pune FC (15:00); Mumbai FC vs Sporting Clube de Goa (16:00); Churchill Brothers vs Salgaocar FC (16:00)
Sunday: United Sports Club vs Rangdajied United (14:45); Bengaluru FC vs Mohun Bagan (16:00); Dempo vs Shillong Lajong (16:00)
Game of the round
Bengaluru FC vs Mohun Bagan
On paper, the Churchill Brothers vs Salgaocar game stands out as an early potential title decider, but the most awaited game of the opening round has to be between newcomers Bengaluru FC and Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan.
In terms of history, it’s the ultimate David vs Goliath showdown as it will be the first ever official game of Bengaluru FC, who bid their way into the I-League and are already showing an urge to set professional standards, much like Pune FC.
It will also be the first I-League game in south India after a gap of two years and what better opponents to have than one of the oldest Asian clubs in Mohun Bagan.
The green-and-maroon brigade have underachieved in recent years but remain one of the most followed clubs in the country, and thus there will be huge expectations from Karim Bencherifa’s new-look squad.
Here’s Sportskeeda’s exclusive interview with Bengaluru FC’s star players Sunil Chhetri and John Johnson, CEO Mustafa Ghouse and Head Coach Ashley Westwood:
The Mohammedan Sporting-Pune clash and United Sports Club vs Rangdajied United also has historical significance, but one gets the feeling that the freshness of Bengaluru FC and the history and tradition of Mohun Bagan makes for a highly interesting match up.
A sea of blue and red awaits Mohun Bagan with a keen interest from the entire Indian football fraternity as to how Bengaluru FC fares as hosts both on and off the field.
There is also the subplot surrounding the India captain and superstar Sunil Chhetri. He will be up against his first top flight club, Mohun Bagan while appearing for his seventh and current I-League side Bengaluru FC.
Players to watch out for
Foreigner: Ranti Martins (United Sports Club)
The top-scorer of the last three I-League seasons has shown another side of his personality by remaining with United SC, who are in a financial mess and without a sponsor.
The Nigerian is still far from full fitness but with 87 goals in the last three campaigns, one wouldn’t bet against him from scoring in the opening round against newly promoted Rangdajied United.
Indian: Clifford Miranda (Dempo)
The left-footed wide midfielder’s absence was felt by Indian national team during the SAFF Championship as his goals from midfield were badly missed.
Now into his 14th consecutive season at Dempo, Clifford has to both perform himself and guide the youngsters. Clifford, who recently won the prestigious Dilip Sardesai award, could vent out the frustration of missing out on SAFF 2013 due to injury by being at his creative best against Shillong Lajong.