Flashback, 16 March 1997: the last day of the inaugural National Football League (NFL). Favourites Churchill Brothers need to win against the hosts, lowly Indian Bank, Chennai, to ensure they win the championship. Instead, they stutter to a 1-1 draw. JCT Mills thump Dempo 4-0 in Goa to pip Churchill Brothers to the post by 30-29 points.

There have been a few more instances when the race for the premier division title (now called I-League) has gone down to the wire. It could well happen this time around too. With the I-League battle resuming this week, four teams seem capable of winning as we enter the home stretch.

East Bengal FC are making a strong run for their fourth title with 40 points from 20 games, and six left to play; Churchill Brothers, two points ahead, are more favourably placed as they have seven games in hand. Five-time champions Dempo Sports Club have 35 points from 19 games; and Pune FC (33 points from 18 games) are also in the fray though they have been pegged back by recent setbacks—if they hadn’t lost two of their last three games, they may have been in the top two.

Prayag United (31 points from 20 games), the team with the biggest budget this season, could have been right up there but faltered after a strong start and can, at best, hope for a top three finish. Mohun Bagan (6 points) went from title contenders to relegation fighters after abandoning the first-leg match against East Bengal, which earned them a suspension. They were let back into the I-League after all the points earned were deducted and must now wage a grim battle to avoid the drop zone with the likes of United Sikkim (12), Air India (18), Shillong Lajong (19) and Salgaocar (20). The last two teams in the league will get relegated but Pailan Arrows (19), the All India Football Federation’s (Aiff’s) development team, formed to ensure that India’s top junior talent gets playing time, will escape this fate—their slot has been guaranteed for the sake of national interest.

As things stand, it is East Bengal’s title to win simply by staying the course. Equally, it is pre-tournament favourites Churchill Brothers’ title to lose.

Under Trevor Morgan, East Bengal have evolved into the most consistent side over the last three years. They last won in 2004, the last Kolkata team to do so. With the likes of Chidi Edeh (14 goals), midfielder Penn Orji and defender Uga Opkara, the team must ensure maximum points from the five home games left, including one against Prayag United.

Churchill Brothers have the reputation of being “chokers" when it comes to the crunch, having finished second on five occasions. They were cruising to the finish line earlier but dropped seven points in the last four games (excluding the last one against Air India which Churchill won). They have tougher outings ahead, but in two-time championship winner (with East Bengal) Subhas Bhowmick, they have a technical director with the requisite mojo to bring the title back to Varca village for a second time.

The Goans must put behind them the loss of their ace Lebanese imports—defender Bilal Najjarin, who took a mid-season transfer to a United Arab Emirates (UAE) club, and striker Akram Moghrabi (he left suddenly and was implicated in the recent match-fixing scandal that erupted back home). The addition of India captain Sunil Chhetri on loan should hopefully suffice on the attacking front but Senegalese recruit Lamine Tamba will have big shoes to fill in the backline.

Despite being in a relatively decent position, Dempo have looked more unconvincing this season than they have for years. Quite a few factors have contributed to this nebulous state of affairs—players’ reported problems with the coach, the ageing of their stalwarts (like Mahesh Gawli, Climax Lawrence, Samir Naik and Clifford Miranda), the fiasco over the signing of ex-Arsenal player Rohan Ricketts (he was the biggest player ever to sign for an Indian club, an attacking midfielder who was being made to play as a striker. He flopped and was released in a series of January transfers), and the inability of the Nigerian Koko Sakibo to deliver on goals. What gives Armando Colaco’s wards the advantage is that both East Bengal and Churchill Brothers have the additional burden of competing in the ongoing AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Cup, so they must ensure maximum points from their own fixtures and hope the league leaders falter. The Panaji team have a game coming up each against East Bengal and Churchill Brothers, so they can also play the part of spoilers.

“It’s been a most competitive league as many small teams (like ONGC and Mumbai FC) have also performed well. I would say that Churchill Brothers have a better chance from among the title contenders but we cannot be written off," says Pune FC coach Derrick Pereira, a former title winner with Mahindra United. Pereira hoped his players would not be disturbed by rival clubs that have already begun the process of finalizing their line-ups for next season.

Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports journalist based in Mumbai.

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