Future of Indian football: Five players who impressed in I-League 2016-17

The I-League 2016-17 season saw teams showing faith in their youth, with some sides such as Shillong Lajong and Minerva Punjab FC regularly fielding as many as eight U-22 players in the starting line-up.

The I-League rule that made it compulsory to name at least one Under-22 player in the starting line-up was seen as a positive step to ensure proper integration of young players into top division teams in the country. Even though some teams found effective ways to bend the rule — substituting the young player for a senior pro in the early parts of the game — it nevertheless ensured that some bright talent came into the spotlight.

The I-League 2016-17 season, though, saw more teams showing faith in their youth, with some sides such as Shillong Lajong and Minerva Punjab FC regularly fielding as many as eight U-22 players in the starting line-up. Here is our pick of players who impressed in the league.
Photo: Rajeev Bhatt
He is a familiar name with Indian football fans, having won their hearts with some stellar performances for Bengaluru FC (BFC), coached by Ashley Westwood, last season. While BFC, the 2016 I-League champion, wasn’t able to replicate the same degree of success under new coach Albert Roca this time around, Udanta matched — if not improved — his performances for the Blues on the right wing.

Udanta is gifted with blistering pace but the Manipur-born forward has added a degree of calmness to his repertoire this season. He often occupied a wide role for BFC this season and impressed with his ability to take on full-backs and whip in powerful crosses. Though captain Sunil Chhetri was credited for the Indian national team’s 1-0 victory against Myanmar in the Asia Cup qualifiers, it was Udanta’s good work on the right flank that led to the counter-attack, which culminated in a goal. It is only a matter of time before this winger fortifies his place in the national side.
Photo: K. Murali Kumar
Isaac personifies simplicity — he plays short passes, holds play well despite his slight frame and makes no rash tackles. But don’t let this deceive you. The dead-ball specialist is amongst the most improved midfielders in the I-League, and his partnership with Yuta Kinowaki in the centre was the key to Shillong Lajong’s solid season. Though a self-proclaimed Cristiano Ronaldo fan, his set-pieces were more reminiscent of a young David Beckham in a red jersey. The player from Lunglei (Mizoram) scored and created opportunities regularly from his free-kicks and corners this season.

Central midfield has been an area of constant change for the Indian national football team with Pronay Halder, Rowllin Borges, Milan Singh, Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Dhanpal Ganesh being tried out by Stephen Constantine in the recent past. Maybe it is time for the national coach to give Vanlalsawma, who has thrived in the deep-lying playmaker role at Lajong, a regular chance.
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Though Lyngdoh still has some way to go before he matches his illustrious namesake at Bengaluru FC, he was a livewire in the Churchill Brothers attack throughout the season and was one of the prime reasons for his team’s change in fortunes after the arrival of Derrick Perreira as the coach.

Equally adept on both wings, Lyngdoh is quick, direct and has an eye for goal. The diminutive forward might find it difficult to enter the Indian national team with the likes of Udanta Singh and Jackichand Singh above him in the pecking order. But the player, currently on loan from Pune City, will be in demand during the next season with the big guns already circling around the potential superstar
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One of the reasons behind Aizawl FC’s remarkable season has been its defence, with the team conceding just 13 goals (second lowest in the I-League). A key figure in the back-line was the young goalkeeper Albino Gomes. The lanky Goan, on loan from Indian Super League side Mumbai City FC, was unwavering in front of goal, thwarting everything that came his way.

Game time and manager Khalid Jamil’s faith saw Gomes, who also sparkled in his few appearances for Mumbai City FC in the ISL, grow in stature this season. The natural shot-stopper, who started all of Aizawl’s matches this season, has improved his collection from set-pieces, while his ability to command the back-line has also become better. At 23, the best years are yet to come for the young ’keeper who could very soon challenge Gurpreet Singh Sandhu for the number one spot in the national team.
While Chennai City’s first season in top division was full of ups and downs, the team managed to give Tamil Nadu-born youngsters some much needed exposure at the national level. While the likes of Soosairaj and Edwin Vanspaul stood out with their pace and ball control, it was Nandhakumar, a late addition to the squad, who impressed the most for Chennai.

The 21-year-old from Vyasarpadi (Chennai) was a constant menace to the rival defenders and his performance on the right wing for a counter-attacking Chennai side earned him plaudits throughout the season. Coach Soundarajan deserves part of the credit for Nandha’s meteoric rise. He showed faith in the young winger, signed from Hindustan Eagles, by involving him regularly in the I-League matches.
Photo: AIFF Media