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Dudu Omagbemi of East Bengal (in white) in action against Minerva Punjab during an I-League match in February. Photo: HT
Dudu Omagbemi of East Bengal (in white) in action against Minerva Punjab during an I-League match in February. Photo: HT

I-League gets a leg up with a close finish

Come Thursday, four teams will be gunning for the I-League crownperhaps the most deeply contested over the years

For a football fan, there’s nothing like a league running into the final day. Given the strange agglomeration of teams that lined up at the start of the I-League season, nobody quite expected it to go down to the wire. Not even the All India Football Federation (AIFF), which was forced to reschedule the final round of fixtures to make it a level playing field for the title contenders.

That’s exactly how the I-League has shaped up, despite being handed the tag of the “second division" of Indian football (the Indian Super League is the primary competition now). This group, which stares at an uncertain future each time the bosses come calling, has shown just why money can’t always buy a thrilling climax.

Come Thursday, four teams will be gunning for the league crown—perhaps the most deeply contested over the years (both in the erstwhile National Football League and the I-League). Two of them—Mohun Bagan and East Bengal—are veterans of Indian football, disgruntled after they failed to make the cut in the ISL. Worse, they found themselves challenged by relative minnows time and again as the season progressed.

Bagan (30 points) got an early taste of just how things would unfold when they were held by Minerva Punjab in the opener. Though they won both legs of the Kolkata derby against East Bengal, a string of draws embarrassed them, especially when they were held at home by AIFF’s developmental side Indian Arrows.

The loss that followed against Chennai City in the new year was enough to end coach Sanjoy Sen’s three-season-long tenure. New coach Shankarlal Chakraborty stabilized the ship, with just two losses in 10 games, to see them in third place.

Though Bagan have been unbeaten away from home, giant slayers Gokulam Kerala stand in their way in Kozhikode—they had lost to them earlier in the season.

East Bengal (30 points) are in fourth place despite having roped in title-winning Aizawl coach Khalid Jamil, along with a few of his triumphant boys from last season. So it was the perfect opener when East Bengal hosted Aizawl and a 2-2 draw set the tone for the season for the Kolkata club.

While they were handed two losses by Bagan, followed by another against Gokulam, it was the draws that hurt them the most, including one in the penultimate round on Monday against Shillong Lajong.

With just one loss at home all season, East Bengal will need to keep that record intact against second-placed Neroca for any shot at the title.

After winning the second division last year, Neroca (31 points) added to the aura of the underdog. Their I-League debut—while relying on a squad comprising local Manipur boys—started dismally, as they lost their opener to Minerva. After that loss, however, they went on a nine-match unbeaten run to announce their title aspirations. The gruelling travel around the country from Imphal eventually took a toll, with three losses coming at home against Lajong, Minerva and Bagan. The three weeks off since their last game should do them a world of good before they take on Jamil’s boys in Kolkata.

Atop the table, Minerva (32 points) sit pretty, with a hand on the cup through most of the campaign. Just one loss in 11 games early on made them the find of the season. Even when they were knocked off their perch, they had the comfort of falling back on a game or two in hand.

However, when most thought they would run away with the league, along came a rejuvenated Churchill Brothers. That defeat in Vasco led to three further losses, taking the league to the final stage.

Of course, if Minerva win their last game, there will be little need to pull out those calculators. Then again, they find across the pitch the side that triggered their slump—Churchill—who will themselves be desperate for a win to avoid relegation.

The permutations and combinations are several, but certain results will make the final round all the more nerve-wracking. Should Bagan and East Bengal win and Minerva manage just a draw, these three will find themselves level at 33 points each. In the three-way, head-to-head, it will be Bagan who will steal the title at the death.

For all those who considered the I-League a redundant entity, a finale featuring four teams on Thursday should change all that.

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