The champions begin the defence of their title with a completely new look squad under a new manager.
Last Season’s Performance: Champions
It was a bit of a fairytale moment in Indian football as a low profile club defied all odds and held their nerves until the last match of the season to see themselves crowned the champions of India, becoming the first club from the northeast to do so. Having been relegated after the 2015-16 season, Aizawl FC were only included because four other teams pulled out of the competition and they just did the unexpected.
Aizawl started their pre-season preparations by participating in the Mizoram Premier League. The I-League champions had a cautious start to their campaign drawing three and losing one of their first four encounters. However, they were quick to change gears and find their momentum. After the end of the group stage, they finished second in the points table, winning seven and losing three out of the fourteen games. However, they managed to keep a better goal difference then the leaders Chhinga Veng FC. Aizawl plays the first of their two-legged Semifinal on 23rd November which would be a curtain raiser before they travel to East Bengal to kick-off their new I-League campaign.
The new gaffer looks focused to lead the defending champions
Portuguese Paulo Menezes replaces Khalid Jamil as the new head coach of Aizawl. Jamil was roped in by East Bengal for the 2017-18 season after he guided the Mizo club to the top of the podium last season. Interestingly, Menezes was a part of Vincente Del Bosque’s coaching staff for the Spanish national team between 2013-2016.
Like most other I-League clubs Aizawl too were hit hard by the mass exodus of players to the cash-rich Indian Sper League. But, the reigning champions also lost a lot of players to the Red and Gold, ironically a team who are expected to emerge as the main contenders to their thrown.
Ins: David Lalrinmuana has joined the I-League champions from East Bengal as a free agent, in what will be his third stint with the club. David will look to master the midfield and make the most of the set-piece opportunities. Liandala Fanai “Sena” is another talented midfielder in the squad this season. Veteran winger Shylo Malsawmtluanga (“Mama”) has left Bhawanipore FC for Aizwal. Lalrozama Fanai and Chhuantea would look to strengthen the backline. Avilash Paul (from East Bengal) and Lalremruata “Arem-a” are the new shot-stoppers to join the I-League champions.
Among the international recruits, Nigerian centre-back Kareem Omolaja Nurain (from Minerva Punjab) will hope to fill in the void of fellow countryman Eze Kingsley who left the Aizawl based outfit. Romania’s Andrei Ionescu (from Voluntari FC, Romanian first tier league) will bolster the midfield, so will Afghan professional Masih Saighani (from Turk Freidberg) in the defence. Japanese Yugo Kobayashi (from Songkhla FC, Thai league) will look to form a lethal attacking partnership with Ivorian Leonce “Dodoz” Zikhai (from Peerless SC, Kolkata).
Outs: To be honest, Aizawl has been hit hard by the mass exodus of players that went on to script history last season. Winger Jayesh Rane, Goalkeeper Albino Gomes and right-back Ashutosh Mehta have all left the club after the end of their loan spells. Mohun Bagan were quick to pounce and sign Nigerian defender Kingsley Obumneme and Ivorian forward Kamo Stephane Bayi from the champion side. Besides, Lalruatthara, Zohmingliana Ralte, Lalthakima and Laldanmawia Ralte (nicknamed the Sialhawk Express) have also parted ways with the club.
Formation and Tactics
Paulo Menezes adopts an offensive gameplay characterized by high level of ball possession that can create a fair amount of goal scoring opportunities. This was something synonymous with Spanish football under Vincente del Bosque.
It should not come as a surprise to see Menezes preferring a 4-2-3-1 formation (or an occasional 4-3-3) with more emphasis on wing play, given the squad he has at his disposal.
Aizawl boasts of a good academy based youth setup. The coach would like to see a few young and fresh legs make their way up to the senior team. With decent game time in the ongoing pre-season, the new signings are getting used to life at the club. The gaffer will be pleased that seasoned campaigners like David Lalrinmuana, Jonathan Lalrawngbawla and William Lalnunfela have also been amongst the goals in pre-season. Not to forget, Aizawl have one of the most passionate groups of supporters in the country, which is very apt as they are called “The People’s Club.”
After last season’s success, Aizawl were unlucky not being able to retain most of their first team players. On paper, the club has a fairly strong squad to choose from. But, the lack of experience may hurt the defending champions big time come this season.
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Top 3 Players To Watch
Yugo Kobayashi: The Japanese striker Yugo Kobayashi has a good track record having found the back of the net 26 times in 20 matches for JP Voltis FC in the Philippines and 12 times in 33 matches for Thai Divison-I side Songkhla FC before joining Aizawl.
Jaryan will look to continue from where he left last season
Alfred Jaryan: Club skipper Alfred Jaryan, who was awarded the Best Midfielder in the I-League last season, stayed loyal to the People’s Club by extending his contract. He will definitely look to prove his mettle yet again.
Shylo Malsawmtluanga: Former India international “Mama” Shylo can make his experience count on the left wing by giving the opposition fullbacks some torrid time. The legendary Mizoram footballer was the first player from the state to make it big in Indian Football. Touted as the legend, he became a torchbearer for many stars like Jeje Lalpekhlua, Lalrindika Ralte to name a few. This will be the first time that Mama will be seen playing in his homestate and expectations are high for all of the right reasons,
What To Expect
The 11th edition of the I-League is all set to get underway and Aizawl will undoubtedly look to defend their title. But they have their task cut out as the club underwent a massive change as far as the team composition is concerned. With some exciting new signings on board, the club owners will look to motivate the entire squad to try and repeat last season’s glory.