Going into the penultimate round of fixtures, both the I-League title race and relegation battle remains wide open. For some teams like East Bengal though, it won’t be their penultimate I-League fixture as they do have some games in hand. By the time Bengaluru play their next match on April 21, East Bengal will have played three times and thus could go top if they win each of them. The first of those is a home tie against Pune FC on Saturday and East Bengal are looking to record three straight I-League victories for the first time since November 2012. Due to previous postponements, the teams are meeting for the first time this season and Pune are in terrible form with only one win in 16 matches in this calendar year and once again they have had to do a lot of travelling due their away AFC Cup assignment in midweek.
There are three relegation six-pointers on Sunday and the first of those is the Kolkata derby between United Sports Club and Mohun Bagan in Kalyani. The match will kickoff at 2:30pm in the afternoon so due to the hot and humid conditions, one can expect the contest to lack intensity and quality. But there is plenty at stake for both sides as neither is certain of avoiding relegation yet. United SC trail Mohun Bagan by two points but have a game in hand. The purple shirts possibly need four more points from their final three games to be assured of survival while one more win should be enough for Mohun Bagan. This is not undoubtedly a must-not-lose encounter for both sides while the rivalry between United SC technical director Subroto Bhattacharya and Mohun Bagan coach Karim Bencherifa is another interesting subplot.
In two other crucial matches on Sunday, rock-bottom Mohammedan Sporting entertain Rangdajied United while Mumbai FC take on Churchill Brothers in Pune. Rangdajied have a six-point cushion over Mohammedan but the Kolkata club have a couple of games in hand and this is their chance to put pressure on the Shillong club once again. Churchill are second-from-bottom and have a similar points difference with Mumbai. Wins for Mohammedan and Churchill could make the battle for survival even more interesting but anything less will make the task of Rangdajied and Mumbai easier. The round ends with a Goan derby on Tuesday with Salgaocar looking to close the gap at the top with a win over Sporting Clube, who are mathematically out of the title race now.
Saturday: East Bengal vs Pune FC (17:00; LIVE on Ten Action)
Sunday: United SC vs Mohun Bagan (14:30), Mohammedan Sporting vs Rangdajied United (17:00), Mumbai FC vs Churchill Brothers (19:00; LIVE on Ten Action)
Tuesday: Sporting Clube vs Salgaocar (17:00)
Game of the round
Mohammedan Sporting vs Rangdajied United
Both clubs made it to the 2013-14 I-League via the second division and now have their work cut out in preserving their top-flight status. It has been a roller-coaster season for Mohammedan as they have celebrated the triumph of two cup competitions but in the league they have been dismal despite having one of the most expensive squads. The black and whites have the worst offensive record while the club has had several disciplinary problems due to crowd trouble. Mohammedan are also currently having a dispute with former player Tolgay Ozbey with the club filing a FIR against the Aussie and they have also threatened to take legal action against the AIFF for allowing the Dempo striker to play against them despite a previous agreement.
Mohammedan have also been in the news all season for not paying their players on time and that has affected the performances of their foreigners in particular. With seven losses in their last ten I-League fixtures, Mohammedan are in desperate need of a win and this home game against Rangdajied gives them the perfect opportunity to boost their survival chances. The Shillong club took a giant step towards safety by managing three straight wins in March but the home defeat to Sporting Clube last week was a major setback and it keeps them very much involved in the relegation battle.
Rangdajied have improved going forward following the signing of Ranti Martins in the winter transfer window. The Nigerian has scored seven in six games but the I-League debutants have struggled at the back as they have the worst defensive record and kept only one clean sheet in their last 11 I-League fixtures. That should give encouragement to Mohammedan but they have been overdependent on top scorer Josimar, who has netted 11 of their 19 goals. The Brazilian is reportedly lacking motivation for not being paid on time so Mohammedan should be sorting that out before this vital match. Mohammedan won the reverse fixture 3-0 in Shillong and thus will have an edge over Rangdajied with respect to the head-to-head if they manage to do the double.
Players to watch out for
Foreigner: Odafa Okolie (Mohun Bagan)
The Nigerian has missed the majority of the season due to injury but still has an excellent return of six goals in 11 I-League appearances. Last season, Odafa’s goals saw Mohun Bagan survive despite the 12-point deduction and the club captain needs to produce one more big performance to ensure the Kolkata club’s safety this term.
Indian: Balwant Singh (Churchill Brothers)
No player (foreigner or Indian) has scored more goals than Balwant in all competitions this season as the 27-year-old bagged his 15th of the campaign in the AFC Cup in midweek. Churchill are still not safe in the I-League though so Balwant would be looking to get on the scoresheet again.