I-League title race: Who is going to have the last laugh?

With only 5 game-weeks remaining, Goal.com discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the three teams that are firm on the title-hunt....
India's top division football league, i.e the I-League might not be the pace setter when it comes to quality or the plethora of superstars teams possess, but what it does have is sorely missing among the top tier European Leagues. While the likes of Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Barcelona have all but wrapped up the domestic league titles in their respective countries, the top flight in India is still as open as it gets, with Churchill Brothers, East Bengal and Pune FC all in the running.

None of the contenders are doing themselves any favours however as they are dropping points aplenty and have failed to capitalize on each other's mistakes. It’s almost a case of the Championship following the familiar 'snakes' that no one wants to go near syndrome.

After having a good start to the season, the Red Machines’ performance graph took a turn for the worse, with easy victories now very hard to come by. The problems started after the winter transfer window had opened, as their star performers of the season, defender Bilal Najjarin and striker Akram Moghrabi left the club leaving the Goan side depleted.

Churchill replaced Akram Moghrabi with Afghan striker Balal Arezou while Sunil Chhetri, the captain of the Indian National football team, is also a part of the side now. After managing only three appearances from the bench for the Sporting Lisbon B side for a cumulative total of ten minutes, Chhetri's return will do Churchill and himself a world of good.

Churchill lead the table, but only just

Lamine Tamba, the former Air India defender was signed recently in order to provide stability in the back, but he is hardly anywhere near the dominating presence that Bilal had. The changes have taken its toll on the team as they have been dropping points frequently in the last few I-League games. However, the team will certainly gain confidence from the 3-0 AFC Cup victory against Singapore side Warriors FC.

With Beto poised to miss out in the next few fixtures due to a hamstring injury, Chhetri needs to step up and shrug off the tag of being a flop at club level both in India and abroad, having won no major trophies for any of the clubs he has represented.

Churchill now have 44 points from their 22 matches and are 2 points ahead of East Bengal, who have played one game more than the Goan side. The main threat for the table toppers will be that their remaining games put them against some pretty strong I-League sides, unlike their rivals vying for the crown. It will be another litmus test for veteran Subhash Bhowmick, under whose tutelage, the side looks to finally arise out of the shadows of their neighbours, Dempo SC. What might even prove trickier is their double legged clash against Mohun Bagan who will give their all as they look to save themselves from impending relegation.  

For the Red and Gold, the last few weeks have been of utter despair. Every week that Churchill had dropped points handing them the opportunity to seize the crown, Trevor Morgan’s men squandered it all, losing 4 points from winning positions in the last 2 matches. The defense has lacked consistency of late, with Arnab Mondal, who had been one of the stalwarts at the back, doing his team no favours by being injured and his replacements not being upto the task.

Goalkeeping blunders have been the Achilles’ Heel for the Kolkata giants throughout this season with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s blunder against Prayag United being the most recent one. In the forward line, Chidi Edeh has been outstanding, but has lacked support. Where the team has been the worst hit however, has been in the creative department as Penn Orji has been a shadow of his former self.

East Bengal are on Churchill's heels in the title race

The team which has now played more than 50 matches this season, will have fatigue as the main enemy that they have to overcome. The impressive win against Tampines Rovers in an AFC Cup away match will however fill the team with confidence. Penn Orji returned to his usual dynamic self after long, in the second half of the match against the Singaporean side. They will enjoy a break from the I-League this weekend, which will help the players recuperate.

The Red and Gold brigade has only an away game to play when they will face Dempo SC in Goa, who themselves are on a losing streak. The remaining fixtures are home matches against Sporting Clube de Goa, Shillong Lajong and United Sikkim. The East Bengal faithful will certainly hope to seal 3 points in each of those fixtures. If East Bengal can seal close to 10 points and Churchill’s miserable form continues, the Kolkata giants may well get the taste of their maiden I-League crown.

Meanwhile, the Red Lizards who complete the trio of title challengers, have had a dry run in the middle of trhe season, but their unbeaten streak in the last three weekends has certainly made them outside contenders to the title. The team now has 37 points from their 20 games, and wins in the next two games can help them surpass East Bengal to clinch the second spot. However, they are yet to play a number of difficult games as they will have to face the likes of Churchill Brothers, ONGC and Mohun Bagan in their bid to the title.

For the Pune outfit, James Moga has been the star of the show, scoring 10 goals this season. Arata Izumi having taken Indian citizenship, the team enjoys the advantage of having virtually five foreigners in the squad.  The defense has been solid, as the partnership of Chika Wali with the likes of Gurjinder Singh and Anas Edathodika has been effective to keep the opponent strikers at bay.

Pune FC have every chance of denting Churchill's and EB's title hopes

Pune FC is clearly the ‘Dark Horse’ in the race, as the East Bengal gaffer Trevor Morgan tagged them a few days ago. Having won the U-20 I-League title last month, winning the I-League will be a dream finish to the season for the club. In order to claim the bragging rights however, they have to win all their remaining matches, and also hope against hope, that Churchill and East Bengal lend them a helping hand.

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