2018-2019 I-League Round 1: The Battle Royale Begins

thebeautifulgamethebeautifulgame Durgapur,India29808 Points
Welcome back, folks to India's top tier domestic league, the I-League. The premier football league of the country will kick off on October 26, with 11 teams from 10 states battling it out for the top honours over a period of five months. This season, the pan-Indian presence of the league will be further enhanced by the entry of the debutants, Real Kashmir FC, representing the state of Jammu and Kashmir for the first time. The matches will be broadcast live on the Star Sports Network with live streaming on Hotstar and Jio TV. The prize money for the champions will be Rs. 1 crore this year with the runners-up, third placed and fourth placed teams getting Rs. 60 lakhs, Rs. 45 lakhs and Rs. 25 lakhs respectively.

The inaugural match of the tournament will be played on Friday, October 26 between Chennai City FC and Indian Arrows at the Nehru Stadium, Coimbatore. Chennai had a forgettable outing last year, finishing eighth in the league. However, this time they have roped in the Singaporean coach, Akbar Nawas who has the experience of guiding his former side Tampine Rovers to the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup. Though they have lost some of their homegrown players like Nandha Kumar, Mohanraj and Soosairaj to ISL clubs, they have made some shrewd investments in the transfer market by roping in foreigners like Pedro Manzi, Sandro Rodriguez and Roberto Eslava and could well spring a surprise or two this season. Indian Arrows, on the other hand, have had a change of guard, with Floyd Pinto taking over the reins from Norton Matos. The club, who had a good pre-season, have some impressive talents in Prabhsukhan Gill, Boris Singh, Sanjeev Stalin and Rahul KP. It is expected that they would not be overawed by the presence of the big clubs and aim for a top-half finish.

The two Kolkata giants, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, would begin their I-League ventures the next day, October 27. East Bengal would begin their campaign with an away match against Neroca FC at Imphal. Backed by the financial muscle of their mega-investor Quess, the club have made a series of high profile signings, roping in Costa Rican World Cupper Johnny Acosta, Mexican forward Enrique Esqueda and Spanish defender Borja Perez as well as hiring former Real Madrid Castilla coach, Alejandro Menendez, arguably the most high-profile manager in Indian football. They would be aware that they have not won the national league for more than a decade and would be desperate to win the crown this time. However, they would meet their match in last year's runners- up, Neroca FC. Though they would be without their inspirational gaffer, Gift Raikhan, their new recruits, Katsumi Yusa and Eduardo along with the reliable Varney Kallon and Felix Chidi upfront would ensure that they have enough firepower to upset any team on a given day. Mohun Bagan would face Gokulam Kerala FC at Kozhikode later in the day. They would certainly be boosted by their success in the Calcutta Football League which they managed to win after eight years. The strikers, last season's top-scorer Dipanda Dicka and Henry Kisseka have been in good form and the return of the talismanic Sony Norde would add to their strength. The club have made some good Indian signings in Pintu Mahata, Britto PM and Darren Caldeira though the defence seems to be a bit suspect. Gokulam Kerala might be called the dark horse of the tournament. They had a stop-start season last time and it is to be seen how the veteran Bino George marshalls his resources this time around. They have made some impressive signings, roping in former KBFC star, Antonio German, Argentine defender Fabricio Ortiz and Uzbekistan playmaker Evgeniy Kochnev and have retained some of their key players like Arjun Jayaraj and Mudde Mussa.

On Sunday,October 28, defending champions Minerva Punjab FC take on Churchill Brothers while Aizawl FC would square off against Shillong Lajong in the Northeastern Derby later in the day. Having lost a number of key players from last season, Minerva Punjab face a daunting task this time. However, the club, known for its youth academy and shrewd scouting policy, have manged to recruit a healthy balance of foreign and Indian talent. Japanese striker Yu Kuboki,, Nigerian midfielder Philip Njoku and Rwandan Aimable Nsabimana along with the highly impressive Hitova Ayemi, Dilliram Sanyasi and experienced warhorse CS Sabeeth give a fair amount of stability to the side. Churchill Brothers are a pale shade of their previous self. They finished ninth in the table last year and were reinstated in the league only because their request to waive the relegation was accepted. With a comprehensive overhaul, both in players, foreign and domestic as well as coaching personnel, it remains to be seen whether they can prove their critics wrong and make some major impact in the tournament. Aizawl FC have manged to pull off a coup by signing the experienced Gift Raikhan as the coach. Though they have lost their star midfielder Andrei Ionescu and Afghan defender, Masih Saighani, they have been able to rope in Kyrgyz midfielder, Bektur Talgat Uulu and Liberian forward, Ansumanah Kromah and a number of exciting Indian players. Shillong Lajong have decided on a no-foreigner policy in keeping with their aim of promoting local talent. This year, the average age of the squad is below 19 and although the team has some experienced players like Samuela Lalmuanpuia, they would have to work extremely hard for a top five finish.

Bye: Real Kashmir FC

Friday, 26 October, 2018
Chennai City FC vs Indian Arrows (17:00, Nehru Stadium)

Saturday, 27 October, 2018
NEROCA FC vs Quess East Bengal (14:00, Khuman Lumpak Stadium)
Gokulam Kerala FC vs Mohun Bagan (17:00, EMS Corporation Stadium)

Sunday, 28 October, 2018
Minerva Punjab FC vs Churchill Brothers FCG (14:00, Tau Devi Lal Stadium)
Shillong Lajong FC vs Aizawl FC (17:00, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Shillong)

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