The first phase of the competition concluded on Monday.

The first phase of the I-League 2020-21 has come to an end after seven weeks of gruelling action. Six teams find themselves in the race to fight for the title, while the others drop into the race to avoid relegation. While Churchill Brothers hold a decent lead at the summit, the onus is on teams like RoundGlass Punjab and Real Kashmir to put pressure on the Red Machines.

It has also been a great season for TRAU under Nandakumar Singh. He looks like a coach who wants to play attacking football, something which suits the style of the local players as well. The same cannot be said about Mohammedan Sporting, but still, somehow they have managed to sneak into the top six. At the relegation end of things as well, it is going to be an interesting battle with some of the teams holding higher ground.

Here are the main talking points from the first phase of I-league 2020-21:

5. Three horse title race?

Churchill Brothers I-League 2020-21
I-League 2020-21: Churchill Brothers are the favourites to win the title this season

At the end of the first phase of the I-League 2020-21 season, it very well looks like a three-horse race with Churchill Brothers taking slight precedence. Behind them, RoundGlass Punjab and Real Kashmir are looking to keep up the pressure right till the finish line. The Red Machines have been the most consistent side and they picked up pace right from the start of the campaign. Although they lost track for a little while in the middle, Fernando Varela’s men compensated for it with some gritty last victories.

While RoundGlass Punjab have also been very consistent, a slight slump at the start where they earned a single point from three matches has landed them in a position where they are playing catch up. But, with Papa Babacar Diawara coming in Curtis Fleming’s side look far more balanced and have the ability to grind out results. The same can be said in the case of Real Kashmir as well, as they were unbeaten until their last match against Mohammedan Sporting. But, David Robertson’s men failed to find the target regularly and played out too many draws, which have pegged them back big time.

In this shorter format, it is safe to say that the league is Churchill’s to lose, but considering it is the I-League, things can go down to the wire.

4. Bidyashaghar Singh scripting his redemption

Hailing from Manipur, Bidyashagar Singh came to West Bengal fairly early. It is here that his career started blossoming. The youngster impressed everyone right from his Bengal Santosh Trophy days, as he was also featuring for the East Bengal U-18 side. He made strong strides and finally represented the Red and Gold senior team in the Calcutta Football League and the Durand Cup. Despite his impressive performances, the youngster did not get much game-time in the I-League and eventually left the club to join TRAU ahead of this season.

It has been a game-changing move for Bidyashagar Singh’s career, as he is currently the highest Indian goalscorer with five goals and has played a huge role in inspiring the Imphal-based side to progress into the top six. His combination play in attack along with Komron Tursunov and Joseph Olaleye has been the mantra of success for head coach Nandakumar Singh.

The 22-year-old has great positional sense, especially in the penalty area, as he uses his pace to get in behind the lines and also makes late runs into the box. His blistering pace and great ball control make him a nightmare for defenders during counter-attacks. He has already impressed a lot of Indian football fans and if he maintains this consistency than a Indian Super League call-up is not too far away.

3. Newcomers take difficult strides

Pedro Manzi I-League 2020-21
I-League 2020-21: Pedro Manzi scored a peach of a goal against Real Kashmir FC from his own half

It has not been an easy season for the newcomers, especially with the league being shorter due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite this, both Sudeva Delhi and Mohammedan Sporting have not looked out of place. While Sudeva showed glimpses of brilliance with their all-Indian squad, Mohammedan’s season has been more topsy-turvy.

Both the newcomers for this season started out against each other and the Black Panthers narrowly edged it past Chencho Dorji’s men. But, with some time, the team from the capital found the mojo and players like Shaiborlang Kharpan, Naorem Mahesh Singh, Kean Lewis and others started delivering. Sudeva were in contention for the top six until the last week and they never looked like a weakened side or pushovers just because they had no foreigners in their lineup.

If we consider the odds, then it has been an underwhelming season for the Black Panthers. With Shankarlal Chakraborty being in charge and Pedro Manzi finding form, they will look forward to a strong finish to the season.

2. Who will avoid the drop in tight relegation battle?

While it is looking like a three-horse title race, the relegation fight is more or less between two teams. With the league being divided into two groups of six and five, considering their position in the league table, there is not much to choose from in the bottom half of the league.

Aizawl FC are well-placed in the bottom half with 15 points, as they missed out on the top six by just a point. Therefore, Chennai City and NEROCA will likely fight it out in this round to avoid relegation. Satyasagara’s team have a slight advantage over the Orange Army, as they are a point ahead of them. But, it will be interesting to see which of them hold their nerve and avoid the drop.

1. Fernando Varela reaping rewards of freehand

Fernando Varela I-League 2020-21
I-League 2020-21: Under Fernando Varela, Churchill Brothers look like a force to reckon with this season

To-date, Fernando Varela is Gokulam Kerala’s most successful coach, as he won them the Kerala Premier League and followed it up with the club’s first national-level trophy, Durand Cup. He outsmarted teams like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in the semis and the final respectively at their den. It was considered a huge achievement until the following I-League season where the Malabarians had big expectations from their team, but failed to finish even in the top four as the season came to an abrupt end. Despite the result, Varela showed promise and had a plan for the future. But, the management had other ideas and decided to part ways with the Spanish tactician.

However, a season later it is Varela’s Churchill Brothers who are playing sublime football and are also the table-toppers. While the Red Machines would want to clear the final hurdle with ease, Varela has finally redeemed himself as a coach in Indian football. The I-League 2020-21 trophy will definitely be the icing on the cake, but the Spaniard has proved a point.

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