The opening week of the new season was a cracker with some nerve-wracking encounters.
The I-League 2019-20 kick-started in grand fashion, with the first week proving that an exciting season is in store ahead, with many teams looking neck-and-neck in terms of quality. The league is already shaping up to be an extremely competitive one, with certain title contenders being separated from the rest in the first batch of games.
There was plenty of drama and action to behold in a thrilling start to the campaign. Churchill Brothers established an early dominance with two commanding wins. With those wins, they sit on top followed by southern sides Gokulam Kerala and defending champions Chennai City FC.
The Kolkata sides are to play catch-up, but the opening games made many things clear. Here are Khel Now’s talking points for the first week in the I-League:
5. Can the Plaza-Ceesay combination help maintain consistency for Churchill Brothers?
Churchill Brothers hold the record for the most wins in I-League history, so it’s only natural that they started their 2019-20 campaign with a crushing win in Goa. The Fatorda Stadium saw some real fireworks from the Red Machines, who blew apart a relatively inexperienced Punjab FC with some swift, attacking football. At the root of their success, unsurprisingly, was last season’s Golden Boot winner Willis Plaza.
He started his campaign with a superb goal, while being assisted by partner-in-crime Dawda Ceesay. Perhaps it was cruel justice that Ceesay dealt a killing blow to Punjab, who rejected him after a short stint earlier this summer.
The duo also ran rampant with Plaza scoring twice against Mohun Bagan, while the left winger assisting a few more with his looping crosses. With Ceesay setting up chances with his precise crosses or incisive passes, a lethal striker like Plaza won’t miss many. As long as they keep their chemistry intact, Churchill will keep soaring ahead in the title race.
4. Could Asian ambitions dent Chennai City’s title charge?
Chennai City got their I-League title defence underway with a narrow win over newcomers TRAU FC, themselves still acclimatizing to the new environment. Akbar Nawas’ side were the dominant force, but perhaps lack that lethal edge which made them champions last season. While they’re still strong enough to lodge a stiff challenge, perhaps swaying their attention to qualifying for the AFC Champions League or AFC Cup could affect their league priorities.
Nawas must use his players properly, so as to avoid any injuries, which can hamper his side’s performances in Asia. As much importance he gives to the I-League, Nawas’ eyes will be set on putting on a spectacle at the Asian level. If they take things easy at any point, Chennai could end up slipping out of contention in the domestic title race.
3. Do Mohun Bagan lack a clinical goalscorer?
The I-League officially kicked off on 30th November, with a clash between two former champions, Aizawl and Mohun Bagan. But, neither really showed any signs of being one, playing out a relatively drab 0-0 draw. While there were chances for both to win, neither could capitalize on them. The Mariners were dealt a stern reality-check, going down 2-4 to Churchill Brothers in their first home game. Most surprisingly, Mohun Bagan looked extremely incapable in the final third.
Kibu Vicuna’s side created a few wonderful chances by stitching some beautiful passes together, but nobody was there to convert them. Joseba Beitia and Juan Colinas are orchestrating the attacking moves with panache, but neither VP Suhair nor Salva Chamorro could score from the numerous opportunities. The Mariners’ only bright spot was teenager Subha Ghosh. They need both their senior strikers (especially Chamorro) to start firing to avert further humiliation.
2. Is Juan Mera Gonzalez East Bengal’s best investment this year?
East Bengal’s opening game of the season was marred by frustration, as they were held by a solid Real Kashmir side at home. The Snow Leopards were rigid and difficult to break down, thanks to Dave Robertson’s expert defensive tactics. But, the Red and Gold dominated proceedings, with their crown jewel turning out to be Juan Mera Gonzalez. The Spaniard oozed confidence down the left channel, traumatizing the visitors with his cutting-edge technique and swift movement.
His set-pieces were deadly, while his clever final delivery assisted Marcos de la Espada’s strike. The Spaniard was also their most dangerous player against Punjab FC, tormenting them with his sleek movement and scoring an exquisite equalizer to earn them a point. Gonzalez is already proving to be their best signing this campaign, as he brings a whole new dynamic with his creative persona. If he can consistently keep pulling the strings, exciting times are ahead for Alejandro Menendez’s side.
1. Is Marcus Joseph capable of maintaining Gokulam Kerala’s grip on the title race?
After finishing ninth in the I-League last season, Gokulam Kerala look a side reformed this time arund. The Durand Cup winners are playing with newfound confidence and panache, with captain Marcus Joseph leading the charge. The Trinidad and Tobago forward started his campaign on a high note, scoring a sublime strike to seal their opening-day win over NEROCA FC.
He receives all the help from Henry Kisekka and his excellent work upfront, but Joseph’s clever movement, exquisite close-control and ability to create something out of nothing, makes him a unique asset for the Malabarians. If Gokulam are to truly go all the way to challenging for the title, they need Joseph to fire on all cylinders and inspire his teammates to maintain utmost consistency.