I-League 2021-22 was witness to a number of faces who created magic on the field. The tournament, held in West Bengal, saw its conclusion at the Mecca of Indian football.
Defending champion Gokulam Kerala FC triumphed over local side Mohammedan SC in a jam-packed Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan, eventually ousting the Black Panthers to lift their second consecutive I-League trophy. Goals from Rishad and Emil Benny sealed the win for the Malabarians even though Azaharuddin Mallick pulled a goal back.
As the season neared its conclusion, multiple ISL outfits started taking notice of the young faces who had been a phenomenon during the course of the tournament. Some of these players reportedly even penned contracts with ISL teams not long after the season wrapped up. With the transfer window opening up, ISL clubs are desperately looking to restructure themselves in a bid to outdo others this season.
Let's take a look at some of the promising young talents who could make their way to the Indian Super League (ISL) in the upcoming season.
1. Suresh Meitei
28-year-old defender Suresh Meitei has been rock solid at the back for Churchill Brothers FC. The Goan side usually shifted between possession-based football and a counter-attacking style of play, and Meitei was sound in both approaches employed by the Red Machines.
Meitei's closing down of opponents was a treat to the viewer's eyes. As a ball-playing centre-back, Meitei was composed in possession and was able to progress the ball through the thirds while building from the back. The defender displayed prowess and confidence playing alongside Momo Cisse in the heart of the Churchill Brothers defense. The defender is known to be on the radar of a few ISL clubs for the upcoming season.
2. Alex Saji
The Wayanad-born Alex Saji started his stint with Kerala Blasters FC's B team when he joined them in 2017. Saji featured only once for the Yellow Tuskers in the I-League 2nd division. He joined Gokulam Kerala FC in July 2019 and since then has been a regular in their first-team.
Partnering with Aminou Bouba at the heart of the Malabarian defense, Saji developed into a strong centre-back and helped his side to a second consecutive I-League title in the 2021-22 campaign. The 22-year old displayed maturity and composure, which proved to be lethal for former Gokulam Kerala FC head coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese's side and is reportedly on the radar of a few ISL clubs.
3. Maheson Singh Tongbram
RoundGlass Punjab FC's midfield dynamo Maheson Singh Tongbram was a real terminator for the Warriors in the I-League 2021-22 campaign. Compared to his appearances in the 2020-21 season, when he had only one game under his belt, the 17-year old bagged 18 appearances after impressing the technical staff at the club.
His stamina, work ethic and ability to get into spaces made him one of the sensations of I-League 2021-22. Reportedly, there are a few ISL clubs that are eager for his signature, which would guarantee the young midfielder's rise to fame.
4. Emil Benny
Vincenzo Annese's Gokulam Kerala FC side were a counter-attacking team that was fueled by smart players doing their jobs. Emil Benny is one who usually featured on the right side of a midfield three, partnered by Jithin Madathil Subran and Sharif Mukhammad.
Benny's pace and ability to hold on to the ball during opposition pressure are a few of the key elements of his playing style that aided his side's glorious campaign. The young midfielder's defensive contributions have also been noteworthy. Benny seemed like a perfect fit for a midfield trio where he could play the role of a box-to-box midfielder because of his industrious style. With teams looking to restructure themselves ahead of the 2022-23 season, the 21-year-old is reportedly looking to make his way into the ISL.
5. Ricky Shabong
Ricky Shabong's football career started with Royal Wahingdoh FC in Shillong from where he was selected to represent the Indian national U-14 team in 2016. He was also a part of the Indian U-16 team that participated in the AFC U-16 Championship in Malaysia in 2018. He made his professional debut playing for the Indian Arrows side when they took on Gokulam Kerala FC in the 2019-20 I-League.
The 19-year-old was later onboarded by ATK Mohun Bagan ahead of the 2021-22 season but was sent on loan to Rajasthan United FC. He featured 17 times for the debutants and played a significant role in their sixth-place finish. Shabong provided two assists over the course of the season, while his work-rate was beneficial to his team's philosophy and his ball-retention capabilities were a major asset to Francesc Bonet's side. The midfielder is expected to make his way to an ISL outfit in the upcoming season.
The 23-year old left footed winger, who joined Mohammedan SC in November 7, 2020 on a 2-year deal, turned out to be one of the best players of I-League 2021-22. Ali started his career with Bhawanipore FC when the side featured in the I-League qualifiers in October 2020. Featuring in 16 matches for the Black Panthers, Ali netted thrice. He dazzled fans and critics with his sublime footwork and quickly turned out to be a fan favourite.
The young winger has reportedly joined Bengaluru FC. Although official confirmation hasn't surfaced, a move like this won't raise eyebrows after a brilliant season.