The I-League 2017/18 kicks off on Saturday and as ten teams prepare for a new season of football extravaganza, Goal takes a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team in their hunt for the trophy.
Next in line are Aizawl FC, who are hoping to defend the title under the tutelage of Portuguese tactician Paulo Menezes.
Aizawl FC reached the pinnacle of success by clinching the championship in the previous season, a feat even the staunchest of Aizawl supporter would have laughed off at the start of the season.
But whenever a new team exceeds the general expectations they are raided by the footballing giants, and Aizawl was no exception. Coach Khalid Jamil succumbed to the lure of managing Kolkata powerhouse East Bengal and Aizawl's midfield maestro Mahmoud Al Amnah, Brandon Vanlalremdika and full back Lalram Chullova followed him. Striker Stephane Kamo Bayi left the club while defender Eze Kingsley joined Mohun Bagan.
They have roped in coach Paulo Menezes, to fill the boots of Khalid Jamil, and the new manager has an unenviable task at hand of defending the title with a dismantled team.
Aizawl FC's squad in full:
Goalkeepers: Avilash Paul, Lalawmpuia, H. Lalremruata Arema
Defenders: Kareem Omolaja Nurain, Lalrozama Fanai, Lalhriatrenga, Lalchhuanawma Varte, Masih Saighani, Lalrinzuala Khiangte, R. Laldinliana, C. Lalrosanga, Hmingthanmawia, Jonathan Lalhriatkima, Lalramhmunmawia,
Midfielders: Alfred Kemah Jaryan, David Lalrinmuana, Albert Zohmingmawia, F. Liandala Sena, Shylo Malsawmtluanga, Rochher Zela, Paul Ramfangzauva, H.Lalmuankima, Vanlal Thazuala, Andrei Ionescu, H. Lalbiak Thanga.
Forwards: Jonathan lalrawngbawla, William lalnunfela, Yugo Kobayashi, Zikahi Leonce Dodoz, Lalkhawpuimawia, Lalruatfela Zote.
Although Aizawl FC will start the season with a depleted squad, this is something not new to them. Every season a host of players come and go and they continue to derive strength from their academy players. The squad is brimming with local talent with the likes of Khiangte and Lalnunfela, who were part of title-winning squad last season and must play a key role this year to help Aizawl succeed. These gritty, tenacious local players will get on the field with a desire to prove themselves and show that they have qualities which forge champions.
Coach Paulo Menezes has definitely heaved a sigh of relief when he found out that Aizawl's I-League midfielder of the year, Alfred Kemah Jaryan will continue with the current champions. Jaryan was a rock in midfield, shielding his defence from opposition attack, winning duels at the centre of the park and then even controlled the tempo in every match.
Jaryan upped the ante when fellow midfielder Mahmoud Al Amnah got injured midway through the season, and by undertaking relentless workload in midfield, led his team out of a crisis. This season, he has a greater responsibility as most of his teammates from the previous season have left for greener pastures and once again his team, filled with young blood, looks upto him for inspiration.
The picturesque Rajiv Gandhi National stadium has been a fortress for Aizawl FC as they picked up 25 points out of the possible 27 from their home games and in the process scored 13 goals in nine matches. Barring Bengaluru FC, all teams including both the Kolkata giants had bitten the dust when they visited the hills, and eventually Mohun Bagan had to let go off the championship as a result of their loss on the penultimate matchday to Aizawl. Aizawl's hope of a successful title defence rests heavily on their home form, and they must repeat their impressive home run in this edition as well.
Only Alfred Jaryan will continue to feature for Aizawl FC from the starting XI that beat Mohun Bagan 1-0 on April 22 earlier this year. From shot stopper Albino Gomes, defensive stalwart Kingsley Obumneme, midfield magician Al Amnah to top goal scorer of Aizawl Kamo Bayi a host of players have left the club for fatter pay cheques and newer challenges. The squad will also miss the experience of veteran players like Jayesh Rane and Asutosh Mehta in midfield and wing back, as both of them have joined ISL side ATK this season.
Portuguese coach Paulo Menezes is new to Indian football circuit and will definitely take some time to get accustomed to it. Although he has been a part of the coaching setup of Spain's golden era under Vicente Del Bosque, his stint with Aizawl is his first with a top tier club. Till now, he has been involved in either coaching development squads or scouting for clubs like SC Braga, Sporting CP and Panathinaikos.
Goal keeping seems to be another area of concern for Aizawl. Albino Gomes, their first choice shot stopper, has left to join ISL side Delhi Dynamos and now the onus is on Lalremruata Arema, who has been starting regularly under the sticks for Aizawl in the Mizoram Premier League. His record has not been too impressive till now as he let in 13 goals in 14 games. The reserve keeper Avilash Paul seems to have failed to impress coach Menezes after moving from Pune FC and Lalawmpuia who has not yet been tested at the top level will certainly be challenged to do the task at hand.
William Lalnunfela, just 22 years of age has been with the squad since 2015. He is remembered for his equilizer against Shillong Lajong on the final matchday, which helped Aizwal claim cthe championship. He has had his share of sporadic chances under Jamil, but failed to provide consistent performances. His speed upfront is an asset to any time, and has been a regular starter for Aizawl in the Mizoram Premier League. But if he manages to better his finishing ability he can break into the U-23 national squad.
Yugo Kobayashi is the star signing of Aizawl FC this season who previously plied his trade at the Songkhla United FC in the Thai Division-1 league, where he managed to score 12 goals in 33 appearances. He can also operate from the wings if coach Menezes decides to play Ivorian Leonce Dodoz upfront. He also has the experience of playing at Philippines where he netted 20 times in his 26 appearances.
The Japanese likes to make use of his impressive built and is also fierce in the air. Kobayashi's contribution will be vital if Aizawl plans to hold on to the coveted trophy at the end of the season.