The league has staged some great on-field action this season.

On 19 April, Phase 1 or the League Stage of the 2021-22 I-League season came to an end. It was yet another edition of the same format owing to conditions prevalent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Either way, with 13 teams participating this time, it’s been an exciting season so far with records being matched, unique defensive records and surprise performances — both for the better and the worse for various teams. On that note, here’s a look at the season so far and what’s to come for the Championship phase.

Format of the league stage

Once again, due to the pandemic, the same shortened tournament format of the last season is being followed this time too. Alongside, the total number of clubs participating was increased from 11 to 13. Back to the format — how it works is that all teams initially face each other once in the first leg of the league. From thereon, they’re divided into two different groups. Further, based on the standings, the top seven teams face each other in the upcoming Championship stage.

Format of the Championship

The next stage is the Championship phase sees the top seven teams face each other once again and the team with the most cumulative points wins the tournament and qualifies for the AFC Cup. Cumulative points refers to the overall points won from all 17 matches which include the 12 already played in the league stage.

While on the other hand, the remaining five teams play each other in the Relegation Stage. Basically, a phase quite literally the opposite wherein the team with the lowest cumulative points is relegated to the second division.

Looking at the performances of teams in Phase 1

As anticipated, defending champions Gokulam Kerala FC finished table-toppers with a flawless record of nine wins, three draws and zero losses. While at bottom, Kenkre were quite literally the opposite — ending with zero wins, two draws and 10 losses. Nonetheless, here’s a glimpse at each team’s performance in the league stage:

1. Gokulam Kerala FC

Luka Majcen
Luka Majcen is the current top-scorer with 13 goals (Courtesy: GKFC Media)

Simply put, everything’s gone according to plan for Vincenzo Alberto Annese’s side. They ended the league stage with a five-match win streak and are on the joint-longest unbeaten run in the league’s history (17).

Key performer: Unsurprisingly it’s Luka Majcen who is the league’s top scorer at the moment with 13 goals.

2. Mohammedan SC

Mohammedan SC were absolutely on fire in the intial stages of the league phase. Unbeaten in eight of their nine games, things took a drastic turn in their tenth one. They lost to Ed Engelkes’ RoundGlass Punjab FC 3-1 thereby losing their position as table toppers with the GKFC capitalizing on this.

Key performer: With 11 goals, Marcus Joseph has been one of the biggest threats in the league with teams predominantly occupied with keeping the 30-year-old in control while they face Mohammedan SC.

3. RoundGlass Punjab FC

Kurtis Guthrie
Guthrie has been the star for RoundGlass Punjab in I-League 2021-22 (Courtesy: RGPFC Media)

With a fine start under head coach Ashley Westwood initially, the Warriors seemed to be doing just fine. Under him, they started their season with a 2-0 win over Rajasthan United. They carried the same momentum and won two out of their next three matches. However, a sudden drop in form meant just one point from their next two.

With this, Westwood parted ways and was replaced by Ed Engelkes. Being a seasoned coach with multiple Dutch women’s sides including the national team, he displayed his might. As a result, the club was able to revive its season with four wins in five games upon his arrival.

Key performer: Kurtis Owen Guthrie has 10 goals to his name this season, including a brace against fellow title contenders Mohammedan SC in what was anticipated to be a battle between himself and Marcus Joseph in attack.

4. Sreenidi Deccan FC

Being newcomers this season, Sreenidi Deccan have displayed their capabilities so far. With 21 points amassed in 12 games including six wins, Fernando Santiago Varela’s side have clearly been the best new side this season. As a result, they’ll be hoping to continue to the same form in the Championship phase as well as they take on veterans of the competition.

Key performer: David Castaneda Munoz has scored nine for Sreenidi Deccan this season and has been one of they key factors in their brilliant performers despite being newcomers.

5. Churchill Brothers FC Goa

Churchill Brothers I-League
After a slow start to the I-League, Churchill are now unbeaten in last six matches (Courtesy: CBFC Media)

Churchill Brothers’ campaign so far is one for the ages, bluntly put. Until their sixth game, they looked to be in terrible shape as they had four losses already. However, things took a complete turnaround from thereon as they won five out of their next six games. Such a drastic reversal meant their revival from twelfth position (Relegation Stage) to fifth with which they sealed their spot in the Championship Stage instead.

Key performer: Joining the club from Bangaldeshi side Saif Sporting Club last year, Ikechukwu Kenneth Ngwoke has been a revelation for Churchill Brothers with seven goals so far.

6. NEROCA FC

Khogen Singh’s NEROCA FC are the only North-Eastern side to make it to the Championship stage. Despite not losing too many games as such, their campaign was riddled with too many draws. As a result, dropping two crucial points in six games despite relatively decent performances saw them finish sixth. Either way, from their own perspective, the season so far is an improvement. Basically, it’s a great turnaround from finishing last in the previous season.

Key performer: Coming to the league with experience from Spanish sides like Athletic Bilbao and Sporting Gijon, Sergio Mendiguchia Iglesias has truly shown his abilities as a forward with 10 goals so far.

7. Rajasthan United FC

Ricky Shabong
Ricky Shabong has been one of the youngsters who has impressed for Rajasthan United (Courtesy RUFC Media)

Rajasthan United’s finish in the Championship stage went down to the wire — with the same being determined quite literally in the last gamweek of the league stage. Similar to NEROCA’s campaign, Francesc Bonet’s side too were riddled with an immense number of draws (7). Subsequently, they only scored 10 goals overall. However, what stood out was their defensive record as they conceded just eight goals — the least amongst all 13 teams including Championship and Relegation stage finishers.

Points table at the end of league phase

Teams in contention for the title

As mentioned, defending champions Gokulam Kerala FC are in tremendous form having not lost even one game yet. Helping them with the same is league topscorer Luka Majcen who’s been in red hot form scoring 13 so far. Right behind them are Mohammedan SC, who too have been in similar form except for the blip at the end that GKFC capitalized on.

Hence they will be the toughest challengers for GKFC who will be eyeing to win their second I-League title in a row. However, there’s nothing to write off RoundGlass Punjab FC as well who with Ed Engelkes’ immense international experience will be looking forward to cause trouble for these two sides in one way or another.

Fixtures Championship Phase

Neroca FC vs Rajasthan United – April 23 – 3:00 pm
Gokulam Kerala vs RoundGlass Punjab – April 23- 5:00 pm
Sreenidi Deccan vs Mohammedan SC – April 23 – 8:00 pm
Churchill Brothers vs Rajasthan United – April 26 – 3:00 pm
Sreenidi Deccan vs Neroca FC – April 26 – 5:00 pm
Mohammedan SC vs RoundGlass Punjab – Apri 26 – 8:00 pm
RoundGlass Punjab vs Rajasthan United – April 30 – 3:00 pm
Churchill Brothers vs Gokulam Kerala – April 30 – 5:00 pm
Mohammedan SC vs Neroca FC – April 30 – 8:00 pm
Sreenidi Deccan vs Rajasthan United – May 3 – 3:00 pm
Churchill Brothers vs RoundGlass Punjab – May 3 – 5:00 pm
Gokulam Kerala vs Neroca FC – May 3 – 8:00 pm
RoundGlass Punjab vs Sreenidi Deccan – May 7 – 3:00 pm
Rajasthan United vs Gokulam Kerala – May 7 – 5:00 pm
Mohammedan SC vs Churchill Brothers – May 7 – 8:00 pm
Gokulam Kerala vs Sreenidi Deccan – May 10 – 3:00 pm
Neroca FC vs Churchill Brothers – May 10 – 5:00 pm
Rajasthan United vs Mohammedan SC – May 10 – 8:00 pm
Gokulam Kerala vs Mohammedan SC – May 14 – 3:00 pm
RoundGlass Punjab vs Neroca FC – May 14 – 5:00 pm
Churchill Brothers vs Sreenidi Deccan – May 14 – 8:00 pm

What to expect

While Gokulam Kerala FC have been flawless, Mohammedan SC and RoundGlass Punjab have had some minor drops. They will be looking to correct in the Championship Stage. Hence, these three teams will surely be vying for the title. The other four barring Rajasthan United have had a tight battle with quite similar statistics resulting in points differences of just about two to three.

Hence it will be an issue of regrouping mainly along with possibly playing the underdog role or even challenging the top three. Rajasthan, however, will have to improve their attack instead of solely relying on a brilliant defensive record and draws.

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