Sunday beckons us all with relaxation, gaiety and jollity. However, this Sunday represents a sense of juxtaposition for the Northeastern rotary of India. Come Sunday, the diaspora of the Seven Sisters - most importantly - Mizoram will feel the cold clasp of anxiety and the warm clutch of ecstacy play havoc on their sensory systems as Aizawl FC play to determine the final destination of the country's most prized domestic football trophy - the I-League.
The Reds of Aizawl under Khalid Jamil's tutelage and Robert Royte's patronage seek to become India's champions, by overcoming their biggest rivals on Sunday in a Northeastern Derby - Shillong Lajong. Mohun Bagan - the only legitimate challengers to the crown- play Chennai City on Sunday in Kolkata and they will hope for some sort of miracle to prevent the 'Apple of India's football loving eyes' lifting the coveted title they themselves won in 2015. Hearts will certainly be racing throughout the country.
The whole country is in love with Aizawl's remarkable cinderella story this season and are waiting with bated breath for a piece of history to be created. The only problem with that thought bubble is that Lajong are more than prickly enough to burst it into smithereens.
If Khalid Jamil's side are not wary on Sunday, Thangboi Singto's young charges will hurt them. It is no coincidence that The Reds from Meghalaya sit fifth on the table, only two points behind last year's champions Bengaluru FC. They have a young and vibrant side, who have the ability to hurt any opponent, especially at home.
Shillong Lajong, over the years, have developed a reputation as poor travellers and their start to this season only served to reinforce that belief. They were in all sorts of trouble with three straight away defeats in the beginning, with one among them coming against Aizawl FC in Mizoram. But once the I-League bandwagon rolled into their home city, the Reds transformed into a different beast altogether.
They went on a four-game winning run at home before taking that confidence into away ties against East Bengal and Chennai City, culminating with a win down in the coromandel coast. Now, they sit in a rosy position in the table. Singto, no doubt, has played his cards well.
In a day and age when most teams would grudgingly start a U-22 player due to league regulations, the Meghalaya-centered team would often name up to an astonishing eight youngsters in the starting eleven. To Singto's credit, he kept his belief in them even during their poor start at the beginning. This resulted in the likes of Chinglensana Singh, Issac Vanlalsawma, Samuel Lalmuanpuia and Rupert Nongrum being thrust into the limelight, and taking the opportunity with both hands.
It was a refreshing approach from the Manipuri coach who should also be credited for maintaining his conviction in an all-Indian defence. Apart from Churchill Brothers and Shillong, all the other teams have foreign centre-backs to help shore up the backline but in Samuel Shadap, Chinglensana, Nim Dorjee Tamang, Pritam Singh and company, the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium-based team have an able backline that is young and thriving. With 22 goals conceded in 17 games, they might not be miserly but they certainly are capable of shutting out Aizawl, who are not exactly a freescoring side.
Another shining light for Lajong this season has been Aser Pierrick Dipanda Dicka, the top scorer of the league with 10 goals. The Cameroonian has been scoring freely for the Reds and has outperformed celebrated foreign strikers like Darryl Duffy, Willis Plaza and Wedson Anselme. The former DSK Shivajains was a regular source of goals in the initial half of the season when Lajong went on their winning run at home. Though his scoring rate has slowed down, Dipanda is still potent enough to be a thorn in the Aizawl defence, come Sunday.
The Reds also have a crafty midfield full of excellent ball players. Japanese medio Yuta Kinowaki and Issac Vanlalsawma have dovetailed seamlessly in midfield and are adept at holding on to the ball and launching attacks whenever they see an opening. In fact, Issac is a brilliant set-piece taker as well apart from having the eye to pick out a pass. Outsmarting this duo in midfield will be a huge challenge for Aizawl, who are without skipper Alfred Jaryan (suspended) who has been doing the dirty work in midfield with aplomb throughout the season.
How that will affect the freedom Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna enjoys remains to be seen. Their Liberian captain and Ashutosh Mehta (also suspended), will be huge misses for Aizawl FC, who take on an uncompromising foe - atleast for this weekend.
But Lajong have not overturned a deficit to win this season and are a confidence-based side. The more they hold the ball, the better they play. Aizawl's best bet is to take the attack to the opposition right from the start. The hosts will not be averse to casting a pall of gloom over the excitement and euphoria surrounding Aizawl FC, the toast of the nation at the moment.