A crucial season of I-league kicks off today with Aizawl FC facing Mohun Bagan and Gokulam Kerala FC facing NEROCA FC in the league opener. While last season had the uncertainty of the league’s future looming large, this season begins with a ticking clock, counting down to five more seasons.
The roadmap released by the AIFF and AFC in October has pushed the league to the second division, and the Indian Super League to top division. Not only that, as per the roadmap, post-2024-25 there is going to be just one league with a promotion and relegation system.
Apart from this there have been several changes since the last time an I-league match was played. In a major boost to the fans and the teams alike, DSport will be telecasting the games with quite a few games taking the prime time slots as well. This will help reach a larger audience and thereby the sponsors that will help the teams to sustain for the next few years. On their part, now that AIFF has taken care of almost all the concerns raised by the I-league club owners, it’s time for the on-field action to take over.
The league has eleven teams participating from across the country with TRAU FC making their debut after getting promoted from second division last year. This means that apart from the much-awaited Kolkata derby, this season will also see an ‘Imphal derby’ between TRAU FC and NEROCA FC.
The season opener on Saturday begins with Mohun Bagan taking on Aizawl FC in Aizawl at 2 PM IST.
After winning the 10th edition Aizawl FC haven’t done as well as they would have liked and had an especially bad last season. The then coach Gift Raikhan resigned and was replaced by Stanley Rozario, under whom there was a slight improvement but it took them only as far as the 7th place at the end of the league. This season they would want to do much better than that. With one new signing to boost the squad-Abdoulaye Kanoute; Kingsley Obumneme as well as William Lalnunfela returning to the club, and a host of local talent from their junior team, the team looks quite good on paper.
Add to this a pretty solid pre-season with the team participating in the Mizoram Premier League, the unit has played well together. They will surely miss their top scorer of last season, Ansumama Kromah, but it will give an opportunity for younger players to step up. Lalremsanga and Rochharzela both have had good runs in the Mizoram Premier League for the team and they definitely will be the youngsters to watch out for.
Just as the case with Aizawl, the Mariners coach last season too parted ways with them mid-season. Khalid Jamil who filled in also could not do much to inspire better performances. The team was placed at 5th place at the end of the league but the loss to Indian Arrows would have been the hardest to take for the team as well as the supporters. This season there has been a revamp to their squad with Spanish head coach Jose Antonio Vicuna taking charge. They began playing under him starting with the Durand Cup where they made it to the finals, only to lose to Gokulam Kerala FC. Post that, they have had a decent pre-season, but more importantly it has given time to the new coach and players to settle down. If that is anything to go by, it puts the Mariners as serious title contenders this time around too.
They have made some smart foreign signings to bolster their squad like Francisco Morante, Salva Chamorro, Francisco Munoz. Joseba Beitia , Daniel Cyrus and Julen Colinas. Along with the ever dependent Ashutosh Mehta and Dhanachandra Singh, the newer Indian signings Nongdamba Naorem and Alexander Romario Jesuraj will make this an exciting season.
Speaking at the pre-match press conference Vicuna said, “We are working together almost five months. We have prepared the team to be 100% ready to play the first game. We respect Aizawl because we know they are a good team and it’s going to be a tough match but we want to start well the competition and come back to Kolkata with three points.”
Meanwhile, Stanley Rosario was aware of the Mariners’ threat, “This match against Mohun Bagan means a lot to my young Mizoram players and it’s going to be a tough task at hand. Mohun Bagan has full strength with 6 foreign players and we have only 2 foreigners with lots of young players promoted from our academy. It’s going to be a big challenge for me and my young players to play against strong Mohun Bagan.”
During the last season, the team from Manipur could not beat their foes in all the matches they played against them and they will be itching to win and get all the three points on offer.
Aizawl FC Full Squad
Goalkeepers: H Lalremruata, Vanlalhritpuia, Lalawmpuia
Defenders: Lalbiakzuala, Lalramhmunmawia, Lalhriatrenga, SR Lallawmawma, Juuko Richard Kassaga, Joe Zoherliana, Melory Laldinsanga, Lalchungnunga, C Lalrosanga, Kingsley Obumneme
Midfielders: Paul Ramfangzauva, K Lalhmangaihkima, Ayush Dev Chhetri, Alfred Kemah Jaryan, Sangdingliana, Peter Lalduhawma, Rochharzela, Isak Vanlalruatfela, Lalrinfela, Jesse Laldinpuia
Forwards: Techi Tatra, Jonathan Lalrawngbawla, F Lalremsanga, David Lalhlansanga, PC Lalhriatpuia, William Lalnunfela, Abdoulaye Kanoute.
Mohun Bagan Full Squad
Goalkeepers: Debjit Majumder, Shilton Paul, Sankar Roy, Michael Soren.
Defenders: Arijit Bagui, Fran Morante, Bikramjeet Singh, Lalchhawnkima, Gurjinder Kumar, Dhanachandra Singh, Lalram Chullova, Daneil Cyrus.
Midfielders: Britto PM, SK. Sahil, Kiyan Nassiri, Lalramzauva Khiangte, Joseba Beitia, Francisco Gonzalez, Nongdamba Naorem, Romario Jesuraj, Surabuddin Mollick, Sk. Faiaz, Shilton D’Silva.
Forwards: VP Suhair, Salva Chamorro, Subha Ghosh, Azharuddin Mallick.
In the other match of the day, NEROCA FC faces Gokulam Kerala FC in Kozhikode. In their two seasons so far, the Malabarians have made it to 7th and 10th positions. This season they start as one of the favourites. They have made several interesting signings like Sebastian Thangmuansang, Naocha Singh and Malemngamba Meitei. Apart from this Henry Kisekka has returned to the club along with coach Santiago Varela. The team is coming from a very good pre-season and the coach was happy with the performance of the team. “We had a good outing during Durand Cup and we also established ourselves in the Sheikh Kamal Tournament against prestigious teams. We are aware of having created expectations, but we must be humble and know that we must always improve. I hope and wish that people enjoy our game and be able to help Gokulam consolidate in Indian football”
NEROCA FC also has their former coach Gift Raikhan returning, and they have made some promising signings of Marvin Devon Phillip, Malian Boubacar Diara, Siam Hanghal and Taryk Sampson. The squad has been strengthened on all accounts as none of the foreign players from last season were retained. But they have not had as a productive pre-season as their opponents, they have played only in a few friendlies, but that is unlikely to deter them, club captain Marvin Devon Phillip said, “The preparation has been great over the last couple months under the guidance of coach Gift Raikhan. We have a youthful bunch and we are all eager to get underway on Saturday. It’s going to be a tough season but we all set for this challenge.”
With two returning coaches and several new faces on the team and a 7 PM kick-off the stage looks set for an exciting game of football!
Gokulam Kerala FC Full Squad
Goalkeepers : Ubaid CK, Lalit Thapa, Satyajit Bordoloi, Vigneswaran Bhaskaran.
Defenders :Naocha Singh, Ashok Singh, Wungngayam Muirang, Andre Ettienne, Mohammed Irshad, Dharmaraj Ravanan, Mohamed Salah, Sebastian Thangmuansang, Jestin George, Sanju, Alex Saji, Zohib Islam Amiri.
Midfielders: Bruno Pelissari, Muhammed Rashid, Mayakkannan, Nathaniel Garcia, Shibil Muhammed, Myron Mendes, Lalmuanzova.
Forwards: Rahul KP, Marcus Joseph, Malemngamba Meitei, Salman K, Lalromawia, Henry Kisekka, Lalliansanga.
NEROCA FC full squad:
Goalkeepers: Marvin Phillip, Mauro Boerchio, Golmei Dihempu Rongmei
Defenders: Chingkham Roshan Singh, Taryk Sampson, Wahengbam Rojen Meitei, Thokchom Johnson Singh, Gunajit Potsangbam, Moirangthem Dhananjoy Singh.
Midfielders: Boubacar Diarra, Siam Hanghal, Gaty Kouami, Thagjam Singh, Surjakanta Tongbram, Ngangom Ronald, Manglem Nongthombam.
Forwards: Jerry Onesemas Pulamte, Zodingliana Ralte, Ronald Singh, Sushil Meitei, Sekle Yawo Zico, Ousmane Diawara