The Hero I-League returns to the refurbished Salt Lake Stadium after 675 days.
The champions of India, Aizawl FC begin the defence of their title by kicking off their campaign at the home of their Hero I-League 2016-17 winning coach Khalid Jamil’s Kingfisher East Bengal at the Vivekananda Yuvabharati Krirangan (Salt Lake Stadium) in Kolkata on Tuesday (November 28, 2017).
It will be a melee of familiar faces with as many as four former Aizawl FC players, Lalramchullova, Laldanmawia Ralte, Brandon Vanlalremdika and Mahmoud Al Amna alongside Khalid Jamil will line up against their former team in Red and Gold colours.
However, the previous season started the same way for both the teams as they faced off on the opening day with the spoils shared at the Barasat Stadium. The reverse fixture was won by Aizawl FC, the season only spiralling downhill for Kingfisher East Bengal from there and this time they would hope to avenge their loss.
With the sole exception of the 2014-15 season when arch-rivals Mohun Bagan won the Hero I-League, Kingfisher East Bengal have finished inside the Top 3 for the last 7 years. They have also been the runners-up thrice during that period. But despite their consistency, the Hero I-League trophy has continued to elude them. Thus the inclusion of I-League winning coach Khalid Jamil with some notable signings like Yusa Katsumi and Mahmoud Al Amna might just be what the doctor ordered for the Kolkata Giant.
Khalid Jamil having taken charge of the Red and Golds since the summer had a fruitful Calcutta Football League during the close season and now sets his sights on the bigger prize.
“I like new challenges in life. I wanted to do something for Kingfisher East Bengal and hence I’m here”, quipped Head coach Khalid Jamil when asked why he chose to come to the Red and Gold brigade. “The goal is simple, that is to win the Hero I-League”, making his intentions crystal clear.
With all the I-League sides sporting a new look this season, the coach showed full faith and confidence in this bunch. “I’m happy with all the players that I have in my squad. It will be a task not only for the juniors but for the seniors as well to adapt to a fresh system. But I think the team is highly capable of achieving its goals.”
“You also cannot take any team for granted as all are good and have done their preparations. So if you take any team lightly it can cost you a lot. Two new teams have come into the league and they can prove to be tricky for all of us”, he added on a cautionary note.
“It is a big challenge. We need a positive start. We are going to play with a good team. Won’t be an easy match. I have got accustomed to East Bengal. It’s been a long time since I have left Aizawl. Even playing at the ground (Salt Lake Stadium) will be a challenge”, said the former Mumbai FC coach.
India internationals Salam Ranjan Singh, Arnab Mondal and Mohammed Rafique will have the foreign contingent of Willis Plaza, Charles D’Souza and Bazzou Armand to rely upon. Eduardo Ferreira and star playmaker Katsumi Yusa jumped ships from cross-town rivals Mohun Bagan and the inclusion of Al Amna makes Kingfisher East Bengal’s midfield an envious one this season.
Mehtab Singh has recovered from a fever and so has Laldanmawia Ralte after picking up a knock the previous day. Eduardo Ferreira’s inclusion in the starting lineup is a touch and go case.
Aizawl FC head coach and Captain during pre match conference held at Salt lake stadium
As for Paulo Menezes, most of the title-winning players have left for pastures new and he will have the hard task of building the team from scratch. However, the Portuguese has been with the team since August and Aizawl are also involved in the business round of their local state competition, the Mizoram Premier League, having played their first leg of the semifinal last Thursday.
Only skipper Alfred Jaryan continues with the side from the Mizo hills. Former Minerva Punjab defender Kareem Omolaja joins the side and with the induction of Masih Saighani, Andrei Ionescu, Yugo Kobayashi and Leonce Dodoz, Aizawl FC have mustered up a strong foreign contingent.
Local favourite Shylo Malsawmtluanga (injured for the game) and David Lalrinmuana, both former Kingfisher East Bengal players will only make the familiarity factor between the two sides stronger. Liandala Sena, Andrei Ionescu and Jonathan Lalrawngbawla are injured as well.
“It’s a very good challenge facing East Bengal in the first game. All the teams want to beat the champions. We are ready to compete”, the Portuguese said.
He added, “We are still a small team compared to the likes of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan even though we are champions.”
Skipper Alfred Jaryan only had words of praise. He said, “East Bengal are the big guns in Indian football. Khalid Jamil is mighty experienced and has been on the circuit for many years. He knows how to get the best of all players. He will be a huge factor.”
The Hero I-League returns to the refurbished Salt Lake Stadium after 675 days and Kingfisher East Bengal will be hoping to stamp the early authority in their bid to win their first-ever I-League trophy. They will face stiff resistance from Aizawl FC, who with a revamped side will be itching to prove that their title-winning season last time was no fluke.