I-LEAGUE SPECIAL | BY SWAPNANEEL PARASAR Follow @Swapyo on twitter
Ahead of the new I-League season, Goal analyses the teams in India's top flight and in this piece, we focus on Aizawl FC.
Last season's performance: (Promoted from 2nd Division) - Aizawl FC will make their debut in the nation’s first division as champions of the 2015 I-League Second Division. Last season, the Hmingthana Zadeng coached side dominated the league as they finished seven points ahead of second placed Lonestar Kashmir. The Red and Whites started the season with considerable excitement, winning all of the initial six rounds, in the process, setting a season record.
Aizawl FC have however suffered in defence, conceding 20 goals throughout the duration of the campaign but made up for it with their impeccable striking tally (45 goals in 14 matches) culminating in a goal difference of +25. The eventual champions collected three points from every match bar three - losing two and drawing one.
|THE COACH - MANUEL RETAMERO|
Title-winning coach Hmingthana Zadeng was replaced by Spanish coach Manuel Retamero in August last year. The Spaniard has served as Bahrain Football Association's (BFA) technical director and coach of the Under-19 side. He also has the distinction of having trained third division sides such as Iscar, Real Valladolid B and CD La Granja in his native country amongst others.
Retamero won the hearts of the Aizawl FC faithful in his debut campaign in the regional Mizoram Premier League which stretched from September to December 2015. His side were crowned champions as they went on to defeat local rivals Chanmari by a resounding 3-0 scoreline in the final.
He is expected to couple his vast international experience with the hunger of the players in a team looking to avoid relegation in their first ever I-League campaign.
Aizawl have made substantial signings going into their maiden I-League campaign. Nigerian centre-half Emmanuel Chigozie makes a return to the club after a season with Police FC to bolster the defence.
While having lost the likes of David Lalthansanga and Morgan Justice in the transfer window, Aizawl have replaced them with former Shillong Lajong player Ronald Zothanzama and Lalramzuava Khiangte. Chhawnkima, affectionately known as ‘Kimkima’, signed for the club as well.
The headline grabbing signings were those of Japanese duo Yuta Kinowaki and Atsushi Yonezawa. The 24-year-old Yuta is a versatile player who can be deployed in central midfield and can also slot into the defence. The former Kyoto Shiko player can also be stationed in both full-back positions.
On the other hand, Yonezawa brings in much needed experience upfront. The 30-year-old had previously played in India when he turned out for Royal Wahingdoh in the 2013-14 season.
Manuel Retamero has stuck to the 4-4-2 diamond formation, his predecessor made famous at the club, in the recently concluded Mizoram Premier League (MPL).
Aizawl FC do look a strengthened side from last season and are deemed fit for the I-League by most. The only drawback remains the lack of experience in the squad at the highest level.
Poirei Soram looks set to be the 'numero uno' choice between the sticks after shrugging off competition from young Zothan Mawia. In the full-back positions, Lalthazuala and Toky Zomuanpuia can be deployed on either side of the central defenders. Emmanuel Chigozie and Lalram Chullova are Aizawl’s mainstay central pairing in defence with Lalengkima Thomas and Lalrozama Fanai providing healthy competition.
Skipper David Lalrinmuana and new Japanese recruit Yuta Kinowaki appear to be the preferred duo at the heart of the midfield with the latter playing in a slightly withdrawn role. Lalbiakthanga has impressed lately and will be knocking on the door for a place in the starting eleven.
With two goalscoring wingers in their ranks, Aizawl FC appear threatening while attacking from the flanks. The 22-year-old VL Brandon and Reuben Zosangpuia have good dribbling and crossing abilities that provide a certain edge to the attack.
The forward line will feature the tried and tested combination of Alfred Jayran and Valpuia who scored for fun in the MPL. Not far behind is the headline signing Atsushi Yonezawa who will be desperate to prove a point in India once again after a failed campaign at Royal Wahingdoh, three seasons ago.
Man to Watch - Alfred Jayran
Much of Aizawl FC’s hopes rest on the potential goalscoring ability of Alfred Jayran. The 27-year-old Liberian has proved to be the focal point of Aizawl FC’s attack for the better part of the last two seasons.
The former Mohmammedan Sporting forward has enjoyed his time at the northeastern club where last season, he and Morgan Justice decimated many a defensive line to be crowned champions. With the departure of the latter, the task of scoring goals lies with him and new recruit Atsushi Yonezawa and a strong partnership upfront is crucial to their chances this season.
It is upto Retamero to use the hard working Jayran in the pocket behind the number nine as he sets up as many goals as he scores. Jayran goes into the I-League in inspired form following the Mizoram Premier League as he also scored a brace in the 3-0 over Chanmari FC in the final.
Aizawl's impetus will be on avoiding relegation.
Inexperience is the largest factor that might hamper Aizawl’s chances of survival, let alone a mid-table finish. If Retamero can instill his Spanish style of play, that automatically makes Aizawl a better team, taking confidence from their victorious MPL campaign.
With nothing to lose, Aizawl FC head into this season as absolute underdogs. Though, one cannot rule out the possibility of a 2015 Royal Wahingdoh-esque debut appearance from the northeastern side, making things riveting in the 2016 I-League.