As the count down to I-League 2017 ticks down, Goal analyses the strengths and weaknesses of each of the ten clubs participating this time around.
Next in line is Neroca FC, have been promoted to the first division of I-League for the first time after being crowned as the undefeated champions of the 2nd division.
The North Eastern Re-Organising Cultural Association Football Club (NEROCA FC) is one of two teams who are debuting into Indian domestic club football's top tier this season along with Gokulam Kerala FC. The Imphal based club secured their participation in the top tier for the first time in 52 years, since their inception when they defeated Lonestar Kashmir 1-4 in Srinagar, with a match to spare.
The Orange Brigade is all set to represent the state of Manipur for the first time in India's top-flight football. Coached by Gift Rai Khan, a former Pune FC academy coach, they can upset any big name on their day and is definitely the 'dark horse' of this edition's I-League.
This is how their squad looks like for I-League 2017:
Goalkeepers: Sambhu Mistry, Lalit Thapa, Bishorjit Singh.
Defenders: Moirangthem Govin Singh, Varney Kallon Kiatamba, Dhananjoy Singh, Gouramangi Singh Mairangthem, Ngasepam Tondonba, Ashok Singh, Thokchom Naoba Singh.
Midfielders: Thangjam Saran Singh, Thokchom Johnson Singh, Chinakham Anandkumar Singh, Fabien Vorbe, David Lalbiakzara, Reisangmi Khodang, Chingkham Anandkumar Singh, Chongtham Kishan Singh, Lairenjam Bisheshwor Singh, Ningthoujam Pritam Singh, Singam Subash Singh, Moirangthem Basanta Singh, Aryn Glen Williams, Israilov Akhlidin.
Forwards: Felix Chidi Odili, Shushil Kumar, Ngaogom Ronald Singh, Richard Roy, Yumnam Gopi Singh, Ningthoujam Pritam.
NEROCA comes from the region which is increasingly becoming one of the bastions of young talent in India. It is the villages of Manipur that have given five players to Stephen Constantine’s most recent India squad and contributed eight to Luis Norton de Matos’ U-17 World Cup playing group.
Their squad has a perfect balance of youth and experience which ensures both pace and stability. They have a formidable strike force led by Odili Felix Chidi, who was the top scorer in the 2nd division the previous season, netting 9 times for NEROCA. He will be ably supported by two veterans of Indian football Basanta Singh and Subash Singh. They were pivotal behind NEROCA's promotion and will ensure a steady supply to the forward line of Chidi along with youngsters Gopi Singh and Ngangom Ronald. Both Subhash and Basanta has the experience of playing in I-League, and they know what it takes to succeed at the top flight.
Sushil Kumar Singh, another known face in Indian football, has the experience of playing in India's top clubs and has also featured in ATK in the 2015 season. NEROCA have enough ammunition in their arsenal in the attacking third scoring and scoring goals should not be a problem for this team.
They have also roped in Gouramangi Singh for the upcoming season to strengthen their defence. A player with 71 national caps and six international goals, will partner with Liberian Varney Kallon, are the two vital cogs at the heart of the defence.
If Neroca boasts of a strong attacking lineup, then their midfield and goalkeeping departments are their weak nerves. Their number one shot-stopper is Lalit Thapa, who had won the I-League twice with Churchill Brothers, but in case he gets injured, the substitutes can be a cause for concern. Mistry has played only 270 minutes of top-flight football in the last five years while Bishorjit Singh was the third choice goalkeeper at Santosh Kashyap's Royal Wahingdoh. With Thapa being the team's only viable option, coach Gift Rai Khan will be concerned.
Their midfield too lacks players who can block and snatch balls at the centre of the park. Their foreign recruit Fabien Vorbe was explosive in his youth and had even featured in the U-17 World Cup for Haiti, but that happened a decade ago. Although Saran Singh can be counted upon, he was more of a bench warmer with Mumbai City as he managed to get only 261 minutes in ISL 2.
Singh has lost much of his sheen and will have to play a meaningful role at the center of the pitch in case Gift's team wants to make a mark In the absence of a reliable defensive midfielder, there is a chance of their defence getting exposed quite often and especially in away fixtures against the more professional sides.
The 20-year-old Ronald Singh is already licking his hands at the opportunity to make a mark in the top flight of Indian football and claim a spot in the U-23 side if not in the senior national side. He has been a consistent scorer for NEROCA in the Manipur State League (MSL) and also played a pivotal role in leading NEROCA to the final of Durand Cup the previous season.
It was Ronald Singh goal that helped claim NEROCA break the deadlock in the 88th minute in their opening game against FC Zalen in MSL (Manipur State League). His fiery pace upfront along with his ability to find the net at crucial junctures will be an invaluable asset to NEROCA in the upcoming season.
The Danger Man
The best recruit for NEROCA FC this season is undoubtedly Akhlidin Israilov, who joined the club on October 4, from Ukraine's Dnipro. The attacking midfielder can also operate from left wing, who prefers to cut inside and then have a crack at goal. It will not be surprising if coach Rai Khan chooses to shape his team around the Kyrgyz international, who also has 12 caps with his national team.
The Orange Brigade have some weak links in their team, especially in the goalkeeping department. But with a perfect blend of youth and experience and by making Imphal a fortress, they can emerge as the giant-killers of this edition of I-League.