The phase saw few heavyweights losing points whereas minnows impressed highly.
The I-League title race has picked up some serious heat in the month of Februray, with runaway leaders Chennai City now not looking so comfortable after dropping points in recent matches. With East Bengal showing impressive resolve to pick up form at the right moment and Real Kashmir still in the fray, it looks like the title race will again go right down to the wire.
Here, we look at the I-League Team for Phase 9:
Goalkeeper: Bilal Khan (Real Kashmir)
A commendable figure in goal for the Snow Leopards this season, Bilal continued his good work when they took on Gokulam Kerala at home. Khan proved to be a reliable figure in goal, producing some impressive saves and keeping the unpredictable Malabarians from taking an advantage in the game.
He earned his ninth clean-sheet of the season thanks to another rock-solid defensive performance from his side, proving how defensively strong Real Kashmir really are.
Right-Back: Lalram Chullova (East Bengal)
After an inspired performance in the Kolkata Derby, Lalram Chullova continued his rise under Alejandro Menendez’s system and continued to be a key figure in their defensive line. Not only did he keep Subash Singh at bay against NEROCA, Chullova was a valiant figure going forward and showed impressive urgency.
He continued his good work against Shillong Lajong as well, countering their pace and trickery with his defensive groundwork and neutralizing their threat. Chullova helped East Bengal record a big victory and a clean-sheet, while also taking a step forward in the title race.
I-League Team of Phase 9
Center-Back: Bikramjit Singh (Mohun Bagan)
The loanee from Mumbai City has made his mark under Khalid Jamil, who relied upon him to tweak up his defensive system at Mohun Bagan. He’s done a good job forming a decent partnership with his compatriots and did well to keep the in-form Willis Plaza at bay in Goa.
Bikramjit did one better at Aizawl, keeping Stanley Rozario’s attacking-minded side from causing problems for the Mariners. Not only was he solid defensively, he also scored the winner to give Mohun Bagan a crucial win to boost their top four chances.
Center-Back: Anwar Ali (Indian Arrows)
Anwar’s arguably been the brightest defender for Indian Arrows under Floyd Pinto’s system and continued his fine work for the young side in the past few weeks. Ali displayed strong performances against Minerva Punjab and Gokulam Kerala in particular, keeping their attackers at bay and helping keep a stable defensive line for his side.
While Ali couldn’t help his side keep a clean-sheet, he played a strong role in them attaining four crucial points to climb to sixth position in the I-league.
Left-Back: Abhash Thapa (Real Kashmir)
A breakthrough talent for Real Kashmir in the I-League, the young left-back continued his compelling defensive work for them against Gokulam Kerala. He disabled the Malabarians from penetrating through his wing and was ever alert to any threat from that side.
Thapa also tried to help his side going forward, using his pace and impressive drive to create chances for the Snow Leopards. He helped Kashmir grind out another slender victory to continue their march for the I-League title, while helping them keep another valuable clean-sheet.
Right-Wing: Laldanmawia Ralte (East Bengal)
Ralte continued his solid goalscoring run for the Red and Gold Brigade. Despite disappointing against NEROCA, where he was substituted before the hour mark, he showed enough resolve to make a strong comeback from it.
Laldanmawia was irresistible against Lajong, popping up at all the right places to cause mayhem in the final third. He scored a superb hat-trick, which included an array of beautifully crafted goals. It took Ralte’s tally to seven for the season, making him East Bengal’s second-highest scorer in the I-League this term.
Central Midfield: Rahul KP (Indian Arrows)
After being named in the provisional Indian squad for the AFC U-23 Championship Qualifiers, Rahul validated his inclusion by continuing to impress for Indian Arrows. He helped them play some disciplined, sleek football against Minerva Punjab, enabling his side to attain a crucial victory against the defending champions.
After being on the bench against Chennai City, he came alive against Gokulam Kerala, scoring a nice goal through a powerful finish. Despite failing to win, Rahul’s drive in the game further reinterated why he deserves a place in the U-23 team.
Central Midfield: Mohammed Abdul Salam (NEROCA FC)
The youngster was a new inclusion from Manuel Fraile in the crunch game against East Bengal and filling in for the absentee in Saran Singh, he did a commendable job. Salam provided a hard-working performance in which he went toe-to-toe with East Bengal’s experienced midfielders and didn’t give much ground away.
Even against Chennai City, he brought balance to NEROCA’s midfield and stopped many of Chennai’s attacks, while freeing up Aryn Williams and Co. to complete the sensational comeback in the end.
Left-Midfield: Samuel Lyngdoh Kynshi (Shillong Lajong)
Samuel was on song against Churchill Brothers and seemed to relish the opportunity to derail the Red Machines’ title chances. The tricky winger was clever with his movement in the final third and troubled Churchill with his positioning.
He scored his first goal brilliantly, taking Mahesh’s pass and freeing himself up before lodging the ball into the back of the net. Lyngdoh later doubled Shillong’s lead with a smart penalty, completing a commendable brace against a formidable Churchill side.
Forward: Jobby Justin (East Bengal)
Jobby Justin continued his prolific rise for East Bengal, putting in some more decisive performances to keep them on track for the I-League title. While he was kept tightly marked by NEROCA, Justin still troubled them with his movement and positioning.
The East Bengal striker came alive against Lajong, linking up with Enrique Esqueda superbly in the final third. Justin scored his ninth of the season by outmuscling Shillong’s defenders and finishing from close range, before helping setup Laldanmawia’s third goal with a clever fake.
Forward: Naorem Mahesh Singh (Shillong Lajong)
Mahesh Singh displayed some moments of magic against Churchill Brothers, proving how much of a skilfull attacker he really is. Mahesh whizzed past multiple defenders, before setting up Lyngdoh’s opener.
Singh continued to ask questions of Churchill’s defending and even after seeing his side’s lead equalized, he looked to peg for the winner. Mahesh got his reward when he struck a sweet shot from outside the box, sending his coach and fans into a frenzy and attaining three crucial points for his side.