I-League Review: Champions Dempo still the team to beat
Only four rounds have been played in the sixth edition of the I-League and already there is plenty to talk about. Three teams still remain unbeaten, two clubs have already changed coaches, while several new foreigners have made an instant impact.
Churchill Brothers have possibly played the best brand of football with their Lebanese international striker Akram Moghrabi scoring four goals. East Bengal on paper have the best squad in terms of strength in depth and statistically the best defence as they have let in just one goal and are still unbeaten.
But defending champions Dempo remain the team to beat, as they occupy pole position despite not being at their best against two of their direct rivals for the title. Dempo were second best against Churchill in the opening game but still managed a 2-1 win. Last Saturday, the five-time Indian champions were completely outplayed by East Bengal but showed great character to snatch a point away from home.
Former Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur man Rohan Ricketts still hasn’t been used properly and in his preferred position by Armando Colaco, while Ghana defender Stephen Offei is yet to feature in the I-League. So Dempo are yet to unleash their other two foreigners but Ryuji Sueoka, who was signed from Salgaocar in the summer, has done well. On their day, Dempo can easily beat any side and the ability of their experienced squad to get points on off days makes them favourites to retain the title in May.
Two other former champions Mohun Bagan and Salgaocar haven’t had the best of starts but with new coaches Karim Bencherifa and David Booth set to take over soon, both clubs can be expected to improve in the coming weeks. Odafa Okolie has already revived Mohun Bagan’s campaign with a hattrick against Sporting Clube de Goa. Salgaocar have shown their battling qualities in the last two rounds and foreign strikers Angel Guirado, a Philippines international, and Sean Rooney, former A-League striker, are slowly adapting to the Indian conditions.
And no one can count out high-spenders Prayag United from mounting a title challenge as Ranti Martins has hit the ground running with six goals in four games while Costa Rican Carlos Hernandez already looks the most creative player in the league.
Besides Dempo and East Bengal, Pailan Arrows is the other unbeaten team and most of the credit must be given to their Australian coach Arthur Papas. Arrows are unbeaten in nine games in all competitions while last season it took them 24 games to register their first win in the I-League. It has been a team effort for the youngsters but midfielder Milan Singh and striker Holicharan Narzary have been the standout performers.
While several big clubs still struggle to attract fans for their home games, the two north-east clubs have played their matches in front of large crowds. The mere presence of Shillong Lajong and newly promoted United Sikkim provides good publicity for the I-League and calls for the presence of more teams from the north-east of the country. But they are not here just to make the numbers as Lajong have already picked up seven points which includes victories over Mohun Bagan and Prayag United. United Sikkim defeated Salgaocar and were only undone by late goals against East Bengal and Dempo. The true test for them however will be the away matches.
There are four more rounds this month with two big clashes as Churchill Brothers will host East Bengal while Dempo face Mohun Bagan in Goa. Salgaocar have the tough ask of playing three consecutive games in Kolkata against Mohun Bagan, Prayag United and East Bengal. With an international break also there due to the international friendly clash between India and Yemen in Guwahati on November 14, clubs will be hoping to have their players back without any injury problems.