Two months into the 2019/20 season of the I-League, it's a good time to take stock of what's going on in the league. It's a competition that struggles to be broadcasted, craves for a watchable online stream and begs for more media coverage. But it remains a fascinating league nonetheless and it lets you peek at the heart of Indian football.
A team held hostage by fans?
Aizawl and Punjab played out a 3-3 draw which was filled with drama. AIFF
Within 18 minutes of Aizawl FC vs Punjab FC, the score read 2-2. Wonder goals by Punjab's Makan Chote and Sergio Barboza. With the last kick of the game, Punjab made it 3-3. There were two handball penalty decisions. Both controversial. There were fireworks in the stand, and a public announcement over it. Ranjit Bajaj, team manager and co-owner of Punjab FC, was banished to the dressing room in the dying moments of the game. A glass was broken there. Stadium security say Bajaj broke it. Bajaj's contingent say it was due to a stone thrown by the home fans. After the equaliser, Punjab forward John Stewart goaded the fans. Fans responded by throwing water battles and drums -- yes, drums -- at the Punjab bench. Nobody was safe. Fans were livid with Stewart. They didn't allow a safe passage to the dressing room. So, the referees had to wait on the pitch for over 15 minutes and Punjab's team for over 30 minutes. A team held hostage on the pitch by angry home fans? Bonkers. Eventually, Stewart and his teammates apologised to the fans. And were freed.
Defending champions struggle... again
Defending champions Chennai City FC have struggled thus far this season. AIFF
This is no longer a surprise. It is the norm. I-League's defending champions usually struggle the following season, since they struggle to retain their players and are stripped off their parts. Chennai City FC haven't been any different. Edwin Vanspaul (Chennaiyin FC), Gaurav Bora (Odisha FC), Romario Jesuraj (Mohun Bagan) and Nestor Gordillo (Hyderabad FC) are some of the key players from last season who have moved to other clubs. Pedro Manzi, who scored 23 goals last season, played only twice this season before moving to Japan. Sandro Rodriguez, a key player from last season, has missed all the games due to injury and new signing Fito Miranda has missed all but two for the same reason. A patched-up side has earned two wins in six games so far. Head coach Akbar Nawas had said the team's situation is "in the minus" and that on paper Chennai are "lesser than even the weakest side in the tournament".
Another barren season for East Bengal?
East Bengal are fifth going into the Kolkata derby against league leaders Mohun Bagan. AIFF
Death, taxes and East Bengal looking like a team that will miss out on the I-League title. Constants in life. The club lost the league on the final day last season. This season promised much more. Several key players were retained. Head coach Alejandro Menendez was retained. But it hasn't gone according to plan. Two consecutive defeats heading into Sunday's Kolkata derby have derailed the club's campaign, which had started with two draws and two wins. East Bengal are yet to keep a clean sheet. A major reason is the absence of centre-back Borja Gomez, who has been in Spain attending a family crisis. Despite this, the team has played five foreigners in all but one game, which should have been enough to earn more than eight points from six games. During the away trip to Ludhiana, the team underestimated the road traffic in Delhi and missed the connecting train. The players reached the city at 4 AM for a 2 PM match, and paid the price for it. Finding newer ways to lose the league title? That's East Bengal.
Game that finished 8 vs 10 in the end
Chennai City went 3-0 up at the home of Gokulam Kerala. A result that looked done and dusted. Then the fun began. Kerala scored twice and could have had the third in the end -- with only eight players remaining on the pitch. Kerala goalkeeper Vigneshwaran Baskaran had to be stretchered off. He was lucky to have not been red carded earlier in the game. The home team had made all their substitutions by then. So, Afghan defender Haroon Amiri took over the gloves. And got duly sent off a few minutes later for a professional foul. In the midst of all this, Kerala defender Mohamed Irshad, too, had received a second yellow card. Because he was angry. Over a throw-in decision. Laughable. And add to this, Chennai City's Mashoor Shereef was shown a red card moments before the final whistle. That's five goals, three red cards, one injury, and 8 players against 10 at the end.
Roy and Ghosh the highlight of Bagan's season
Mohun Bagan lead the I-League after 7 games played. AIFF
Mohun Bagan are early frontrunners alongside Churchill Brothers. Despite starting off on a shaky note, Bagan recovered with four wins on the trot. The team's foreign spine is established: two centre-backs and three midfielders, including defensive midfielder Fran Gonzalez popping up as the league's surprise top scorer with five goals. Striker Salvadaro Chamorro has been replaced by Babacar Diawara - who hasn't scored in three starts. But 19-year-old Subha Ghosh has scored thrice, including a late equaliser in Ludhiana that was all his own making. He has been a revelation. So has 24-year-old Sankar Roy, who came into the team after Debjit Majumder's amateurish goalkeeping in the 2-4 defeat to Churchill. Roy's heroics have earned Bagan several points this season. Roy and Ghosh excite Bagan supporters in the same manner Jobby Justin had East Bengal fans dancing last year.
Churchill Brothers' costly defeat?
Willis Plaza has scored four goals for Churchill Brothers in the I-League this season. AIFF
Goan club Churchill Brothers look like title contenders. In fact, they would be firm favourites too. Except, they lost to Indian Arrows, the football federation's young developmental team. An embarrassing loss the club may come to rue at the end of the season. Goalkeeper James Kithan came under the spotlight. His late howler gifted Arrows the winning goal. This was Kithan's only start this season, and it is unlikely that he will be given another one. Churchill have already beaten Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, and thrashed Punjab. Forward Willis Plaza looks in fine form -- though his propensity to miss easy chances is still high -- and the team's foreign spine is stable and thriving.
I-League's first Imphal Derby
Over 23,000 fans attended the Imphal derby, the first ever at the highest levels of the game. A reminder to everyone where the heart of Indian football lies: in cities the broadcasters choose to ignore. TRAU, the I-League debutants, beat NEROCA 2-1. It was quite the derby in all respects. A vociferous crowd; split by loyalties and carefully segregated inside the stadium. An early tackle; the signal of intent. NEROCA committed 11 fouls in the first half alone. TRAU were the better side. But the two goalkeepers shone bright. Skipper Marvin Phillip, of Trinidad and Tobago, rescued NEROCA several times, while his counterpart Mithun Samanta denied NEROCA. It was TRAU's first-ever I-League win but tough times lie ahead following the termination of contract with sponsors Aciesta.
Solving the Dicka mystery
Cameroonian forward Asier Dicka Dipanda hasn't been a regular starter for Punjab FC. It is only a mystery till you see him on the pitch. Problem with Dipanda is his contribution to the team outside of his goals. He was I-League's top scorer for two consecutive seasons; first for Shillong Lajong in 2017 and then for Mohun Bagan in 2018. Last season, his profligacy in front of goal meant his strike partner at Bagan, Henry Kisekka, though not in great form himself, was often preferred for his style of play -- which brought more of his teammates into the game. Dicka, though, has scored thrice this season -- three well-hit volleys too. But his miss against TRAU in a goalless draw summed him up: with almost all of the goal to hit, he found his teammate Barboza in the way of the shot. If Dicka starts firing, Punjab FC could start firing too.
Higginbottom, the toast of Kashmir
Real Kashmir FC's style of play centres around long balls and crosses. Which makes Michael Higginbottom a godsend. The British forward, a free kick specialist, has been incredible with his delivery -- both from open play and set pieces. He has hefty targets to aim at too: Gnohere Krizo, the Ivorian striker who bullies opponents into submission, and Mason Robertson, the Britisher who has moved from defence to playing as a second striker. Kashmir, though, have scored only six times in six games, which does not reflect well in Higginbottom's numbers. A lot of the blame lies with Robertson, who is making 'Miss of the Season' his own personal competition. Once a defender, always a defender?