Kolkata: Struggling to attract football fans to stadiums and reduced to just nine teams after the pull-out of three clubs, the ninth edition of I-League kicks off at the Salt Lake Stadium on Saturday with a clash between defending champions Mohun Bagan and debutants Aizawl FC.
To be competed by the least number of teams in its history, this season's I-League will have 72 matches to be played in 18 rounds among the nine clubs across six cities on home-and-away basis, with the final round matches scheduled for April 24.
A gap of more than two weeks has been kept in fixtures as India will have to play their two remaining 2018 World Cup qualifying round matches, though they are out of contention of advancing further.
Forced to start the season in January after the advent of the successful Indian Super League since last year, I-League suffered a jolt after the pull-out of Pune FC, Bharat FC and Royal Wahingdoh owing to financial woes in running their clubs.
The All India Football Federation was able to rope in Pune-based DSK Shivajians for this season while Aizawl FC made the top-tier grade after winning the second division I-League. Former champions Dempo will not be seen this time after being relegated last season.
Besides defending champions Mohun Bagan, the other six clubs competing this season are Bengaluru FC, East Bengal, Sporting Clube de Goa, Mumbai FC, Salgaocar FC and Shillong Lajong.
Defending champions Mohun Bagan would no doubt be among the favourites to win the title this season also as they have strengthened their squad with the new signings of Trinidadian 2006 World Cupper Glenn Cornell, midfielder Lenny Rodrigues and Subhas Singh (on loan).
Bagan's strike force could be lethal as they now have Cornell, who scored 16 goals while playing for Shillong Lajong last season, Haitian international Sony Norde -- who was retained for this season along with Katsumi Yusa -- and Jeje Lalpekhlua, who had a very good ISL season.
Aizwal FC are more or less an unknown quantity, though they were impressive in the I-League second division, and they will no doubt begin as underdogs against Mohun Bagan.
Traditional rivals Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will lock horns on January 23 in front of the ever-passionate Kolkata fans. The return leg between these two Indian football powerhouses will be played on April 2.
The I-League champions will receive a prize purse of Rs one crore as compared to previous season's Rs 70 lakhs. Teams finishing second and third will win Rs 60 lakhs and Rs 40 lakhs respectively.
Additionally, winners of every game will win Rs 50,000. Travel subsidy has also been raised to Rs 45 lakhs with the match day subsidy hiked to Rs one lakh. 45 out of the 72 games will be telecast live on Ten Sports Network.
Last season, the I-League went down to the wire with the eventual champions being decided on the final day. AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das said he hoped the same happened this time also.
"We've witnessed an enthralling Hero I-League last season which kept us captivated till the final whistle on 31st May, 2015. Definitely the teams will try to push their limits this season too and strive hard to win the silverware. Champions Mohun Bagan can't show any signs of complacency as all eight teams will play out of their skins to dethrone them," Das had said during the launch ceremony of the tournament in Kolkata.