As we count down towards yet another season of I-League, Goal analyses the strengths and weaknesses of each club participating this time around.
The North Eastern Re-Organising Cultural Association Football Club (NEROCA FC) is one of two teams who is debuting into Indian domestic club football's top tier this season along with Gokulam Kerala FC.
This is how their squad looks like for I-League 2017:
Goalkeepers: Nikhil Bernard, Bilal Khan, Priyant Kumar, Ajmal PA.
Defenders: Provat Lakra, Santu Singh, Shinu S, Sanju G, Sushanth Mathew, Daniel Addo, Emmanuel Chigozie, Mohammed Salah, Dibin M D.
Midfielders: Gulom Urunov, Muhammed Rashid, Irshad, Arjun Jayaraj, Mohamed Saukat.
Forwards: Khaled Alsaleh, Usman Ashik, Rohit Mirza, Jimshad, Vicky Meitei, Salman, Shoaib, Lalrameng Mawia, Lelo Mbele Blaise, Kamo Stephane Bayi, Arif Javed.
The presence of former Aizawl FC and Mohun Bagan forward Kamo Bayi in Gokulam's front line is promising. The talented striker played his part in Aizawl's famous title win last season and if he can find his scoring boots early on in the season, it will act as the perfect launchpad for the I-League new entrants this season. The sooner they climb up the table, the better.
It's not his first time in Kerala for Afghanistan national team midfielder Faysal Shayesteh. The attacking midfielder, who can also slot in as a forward, impressed at the SAFF Cup under coach Petar Segrt and will be adored by the new club's fans in no time. The Afghanistan national team skipper has had to return to his homeland due to personal issues and it will be Gokulam's loss if they miss out on Shayesteh's services.
Regular minutes have been hard to come by for Sushant Mathew but the Gokulam Kerala FC skipper is set to be the mainstay in this team. He is experienced and had plied his trade at several Indian clubs including East Bengal and Kerala Blasters. Things will be different for the Wayanad-born lad this season as he will carry the extra weight of being the captain of this budding Kerala-based club.
Despite their strength in the attacking third, Gokulam Kerala will struggle to stop opponents from taking advantage through turnovers. The midfielders in the squad do not stand out and they are missing a stronghold in midfield.
Another concern for Gokulam is going to be match fitness. Most players in their squad are accustomed to roles from the bench and cannot boast regular first-team minutes at any club they have been a part of. This is going to be their first full season of regular first-team football and could end up being too much of a challenge.
Ivory Coast-born Kamo Stephane Bayi caught they eye of football fans in the country last season with his dream title-clinching stint at Aizawl FC. He managed 17 appearances for the defending I-League champions and notched six goals on his ride to the title. The talented forward featured for Mohun Bagan in this year's Calcutta Football League (CFL) and his performances attracted interest from East Bengal.
Impressed with the striker, East Bengal coach Khalid Jamil then stated, “For me, Kamo has been the best player in this season's CFL. Honestly, we don't know what is to be done with him, as our Indian strikers, too, are very good. But if Bagan do release Kamo, we will certainly think about him."
The Danger Man
Although Congolese striker Lelo Mbele has impressed for Gokulam Kerala FC during pre-season training, Kamo Bayi will be the one to watch out for. Former Aizawl FC striker's hunger in front of goal will be key if Gokulam Kerala are to climb up the table to catch up with the already established I-League giants.