I-League 2018-19: The title race begins

The 12th edition of the I-League will see 11 teams from 10 states fight for top honors over a gruelling six-month campaign.

East Bengal's Johnny Acosta (L) and Mohun Bagan's Sony Norde and Dipanda Dicka will be among the key players to watch out for this season.

As the 11 teams in the I-League prepare for a gruelling six-month campaign, question marks remain over the league's future amid talks of a restructuring of the country’s domestic football circuit from next season.

The I-league, which is already shorn of high-profile Indian players with the departure of Bengaluru FC to the Indian Super League in 2017, might yet retain significant interest among the viewers if last season was any indication.

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The 2017-18 season title race was decided between four teams in a photo finish on the last day with underdog Minerva Punjab FC emerging the champion. Minerva, however, chose to part ways with coach Khogen Singh and has promoted assistant coach Sachin Bhadade to the top job. The management has roped in promising forward Hitova Ayemi from Fateh Hyderabad to fill in the hole left by Chencho Gyltshen’s move to Bengaluru.

Mohun Bagan, which last won the title in 2014, appears to be the clear favourite for the title. The club broke East Bengal’s nine-year hold of the Calcutta Football League by winning the title last month. Shankarlal Chakraborty, who took over as coach in January earlier this year, has a strong squad in his disposal. The duo of back-to-back golden boot winner Aser Pierrick Dipanda Dicka and the returning Sony Norde will be a cause for worry for defences across the country.

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For its rival, East Bengal, the season marks the last opportunity to win a maiden I-League title. New Spanish coach Alejandro Menendez will take over a squad which looks thin in the striking department. Youngster Joby Justin, who impressed in the CFL, could be set for a breakthrough season as the Red and Golds' forward. The signing of Costa Rican international Johnny Acosta adds experience in defence.

The league will once again have three strong representatives from the North East. NEROCA FC, which surprised by finishing second last season, will have Spanish coach Manuel Retamero Fraile at the helm. It has roped in influential attacker Katsumi Yusa and defender Eduardo Ferreira from East Bengal in the summer and managed to retain forward Felix Chidi Odili. NEROCA has also held on to its local players from the last term.

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Gift Raikhan, formerly of NEROCA, will be pulling the strings as the new head coach of Aizawl FC and has brought valuable overseas additions along the spine of the team in the form of Ansumanah Kromah, Bektur Talgat Uulu and Karim Omolaja.

The third North East side, Shillong Lajong has opted for an Indian squad this term under Alyson Kharsyntiew. Alyson is the only coach to remain in charge of an I-League side since the start of last season.

Churchill Brothers, which was reinstated into the top division despite being relegated last season, will be the only team represnting the west. The former I-League champion will be confident for the new season after it defeated a strong FC Goa side in a friendly over the international break last week. Willis Plaza will be the go-to player under new coach Petre Gigiu.

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Chennai City FC under Singapore's Mohammad Nawaz will be aiming for a higher finish than eighth. The team has roped in four Spanish players and has indicated that it will play possession-based football.

The league will also have a representative from the valley for the first time after Real Kashmir gained promotion from the second division I-League.

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Floyd Pinto, who has impressed with the Indian age group sides in recent months, will take charge of the AIFF development side Indian Arrows after Portuguese Luis Norton Matos chose not to renew his contract. The Arrows will be made of India’s U-20 players, which includes players on loan from top ISL sides.

Gokulam Kerala FC will be aiming to build on its debut campaign where it ended the season with a string of good results which included the scalps of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. The side has set itself the target of winning the I-League and qualify for the AFC Cup under Bino George, who returned to the role of head coach after the club parted ways with Fernando Valera last month.

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