The going gets tough for Salgaocar

Ranty Martins (right) of Dempo SC in action against HAL SC during an I-League match in Bangalore.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH Ranty Martins (right) of Dempo SC in action against HAL SC during an I-League match in Bangalore.

Karim Bencherifa's men endured a terrible beginning to the campaign, mustering only nine points from their opening nine fixtures. The side has hoarded 27 points in the 11 games since, victory against HASC in December 2011 proving to be a turning point as the Moroccan had believed, but it may not be enough, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

The I-League heads into a six-week break in light of India's participation in the AFC Challenge Cup. It is as good a time as any to raise a few points.

THE BRIGHT

An interesting run-in awaits (although the title is Dempo's to lose)

Salgaocar sprang a surprise last season with a first league title in 12 years but an encore looks unlikely at this stage. Karim Bencherifa's men endured a terrible beginning to the campaign, mustering only nine points from their opening nine fixtures. The side has hoarded 27 points in the 11 games since, victory against HASC in December proving to be a turning point as the Moroccan had believed, but it may not be enough.

Dempo, while not looking the unstoppable force it did at the beginning (due in no small part to its players' involvement in the SAFF Cup), still sits on top of the league table with a six-point cushion (after 20 rounds), with East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Churchill Brothers and Salgaocar all forming an eager bottleneck behind.

Things will get interesting, however, once the league resumes: Dempo faces Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Churchill in the space of 11 days in April. It should set up an engrossing denouement.

Promoted sides fare well

Shillong Lajong and Sporting Clube de Goa may have featured in the top flight before but it is somewhat heartening to see newly-promoted clubs hold their own. Lajong has not been entirely convincing this season, failing to win more than one match in a row until the latest two games, but in 10th place with survival virtually guaranteed, the manager Pradhyum Reddy is probably not complaining. He didn't want Lajong to turn into a yoyo side between the divisions, he said last year. That will require continuing work but the club's fanatical supporters in India's north-east (the home ground, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong — where it returned at the start of the New Year once an artificial turf was laid — consistently reports the highest attendances outside of Kolkata) will for now be satisfied.

Sporting Clube de Goa has done better, finding itself in a veritably respectable eighth place, beating the likes of Salgaocar and Mohun Bagan along the way. With James Moga and Ogba Kalu in fine form, the team has not been short of goals, scoring 41 of them (fewer only than Dempo). Its expansive play has also seen Sporting concede a fair few (35, the third highest tally in the league) but such details will be treated as mere trivialities when the larger goal has been accomplished.

Ranty and Odafa have still got it

For the seventh time running, either of Ranti Martins or Odafa Okolie will finish the season as the leading goal-scorer. The Nigerians continue to knock them in, the former on 23 for 2011-12 already, the latter on 19. Perhaps it is a commentary on the state of defences across the league or the lack of other strikers, but the duo's appetite for goal has not diminished.

THE NOT-SO-BRIGHT

No North Indian teams; no South Indian teams soon

The league's footprint is shrinking. JCT's relegation — and immediate disbandment — and Indian Arrows' (then called so) migration to Kolkata at the end of last season left India's highest division with no representative from the north. With HASC and Chirag United Club Kerala now looking doomed for relegation, it is likely the 2012-13 I-League season will have no clubs from the country's south either. HASC has been a study in ineptitude, winning one game, drawing four, losing 15, and clinging to the foot of the table like something out of an adhesive commercial.

Chirag United Club Kerala has only a marginally better chance of avoiding the drop. It may lie only three points behind Mumbai FC with a game in hand, but with fixtures against Churchill Brothers, East Bengal and Salgaocar yet to come, the forecast is gloomy. In any case, the club had failed in one attempt to relocate to West Bengal before the season began, and was likely to launch a (possibly successful) second afterwards.

Mohun Bagan's Odafa Okolie (No.9) scores against Mumbai FC.-PTI

JCT, winner of the inaugural edition of the National Football League in 1996-97 (inspired by a young Baichung Bhutia), said at the time of disbandment that it was staying out till “football in India shows some possibility of generating value for corporates and their brands, besides bringing up popularity of football among youngsters… JCT won the inaugural Football League where there was high quality TV exposure and widespread public interest. But since then the league has had negligible exposure and the teams have been going almost unnoticed.”

The disappearance of the I-League's presence from Bangalore and Kerala then will scarcely help matters.

What of Pailan Arrows

The former Pailan Arrows manager Desmond Bulpin told reporters in Bangalore last season that he was baffled by the widespread condemnation his side had copped. “These guys are the future of Indian football,” he exclaimed. “How can you be against them?” The matter is, of course, more complicated than that. The AIFF's ‘developmental side', then called Indian Arrows, entered the I-League last season, finishing ninth. The likes of Jeje Lalpekhlua, Jewel Raja Shaikh, Lalrindika Ralte and Manandeep Singh — who would have spent time warming the bench at their other clubs — rose to prominence here, before moving on or returning to their parent clubs at the end of the season.

The team's immunity from relegation, though, never did sit well with other clubs. So, when Pailan Arrows (rebranded and renamed after its sponsor), unleashed a dreary, defensive brand of play this season, the clamour for its dissolution only grew louder. Bulpin had been sacked in August 2011 for the same ostensible reason, but the style of play, by all accounts, appears to have gotten only more defensive since. The former JCT manager Sukhwinder Singh (incidentally at the helm in that glorious 96-97 season) was then appointed Technical Director; he quit earlier this month. There were rumours midway through last season that Arrows would be done away with. They could come to materialise this time.

Whither Indian strikers

It is perhaps the other half of the argument. Ranty and Odafa may all be very well but what of our own attackers? The I-League's top 10 scorers this season — and indeed the last — have been from overseas. It is no new observation, but the issue has returned to the fore as Savio Medeira struggles to find a replacement for the injured Lalepekhlua for the AFC Challenge Cup (Nepal, March 8-19). Indian supporters would rather the likes of Manandeep, Sushil Kumar Singh, C. S. Sabeeth and Joaquim Abranches, who have been named in the squad, had more game time.

Clubs are, of course, fully entitled to field their big-money strikers from abroad but it is an insistence on playing some despite failures (perhaps compelled by their price tag) that irks.