Uncertainty looming over their future with ISL gaining popularity, the 10th edition of the I-League football may be East Bengal’s last chance to win the trophy, which is missing from their cabinet, as they look to start the campaign with a win against Aizawl FC on 7 January.
Despite their overwhelming success in other tournaments, the red-and-gold’s best finish has been runners-up in the top-tier league, which is speculated to be merged with ISL from 2017-18.
Trevor Morgan, East Bengal’s favourite who has guided the team to Federation Cup titles and I-League runners-up twice, is back in his second stint. The Englishman would be desperate to prove a point.
East Bengal have an interesting team combination after parting ways with Do Dong-Hyun and Ranti Martins. Their defence is bolstered by Ivan Bukenya, who played for South African top division club Kaizer Chiefs. Bukenya along with Robin Gurung and Anwar Ali, back after an impressive show in ISL with Mumbai City, will be interesting to watch.
In the midfield, NorthEast United FC’s Rowllin Borges has joined the side after his sparkling show in the ISL. His coordination with Mehtab Hossain will be much-anticipated.
Trinidadian Willis Plaza and Haitian Wedson Anselme have been the two foreign striking options along with Thongkhosiem Haokip, Nikhil Poojary and VP Suhair.
Bengaluru and Bagan to have one eye on Asian competition
Bengaluru FC will begin their I-League title defence with a match against Shillong Lajong at home on 7 January as well.
Former champions Mohun Bagan play their opening match at home (Rabindra Sarobar Stadium) on January 8 against Churchill Brothers, while Mumbai FC and Chennai City FC take on DSK Shivajians and Minerva Punjab FC respectively on the same day.
Another two-horse race between the two is expected, but Bengaluru’s recent form suggests Bagan will make up the chasing pack behind a team which looks very settled despite manager Ashley Westwood leaving after last season’s I-League win.
Churchill, one of the clubs dumped out of I-League in 2014 for failing to fulfil stringent club licensing criteria, returned to the top division after missing out two seasons.
Chennai City FC and Minerva Punjab FC are making their I-League debuts after the AIFF drafted the two sides after a bidding process.
Bengaluru FC will travel to Jordan for their preliminary stage 2 match of the AFC Champions League against Al Wehdat on January 31. But, Alberto Roca-coached side will get just three days to prepare for this crucial match, that too including travel time, as they play Churchill in Goa in a fifth round I-League match on January 27.
Bengaluru FC had earned the right to play in the qualifying round of the AFC Champions League — the top level club competition of the continent — after finishing runners-up in AFC Cup, Asia’s second tier club competition, a first by an Indian side.
On the other hand, Mohun Bagan, who finished second in I-League last season, play their AFC Cup match on January 31 but that will be seven days after taking on DSK Shivajians in their fifth round I-League match in Pune.
Feature image source: PTI