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I-League: Aizawl FC will need to break the established order to win historical title

There is a derby scheduled for Sunday, a derby where a talented team that has rediscovered itself takes on their rivals, those that define the established order. It is a derby where a win for tradition will break the hearts of the new. The underdogs are the favourites, but the regulars can still break the party. The rivals to these plucky brigands cannot win the title, but could definitely deny them a chance at it. It is a derby, where after years of being overshadowed by the big boys, finally the moment of truth has arrived. That derby will be in North London.  Tottenham Hotspur will take on Arsenal for the final time at White Hart Lane.

 I-League: Aizawl FC will need to break the established order to win historical title

Aizawl FC players acknowledge their supporters after a match. Image courtesy: AIFF media

Before the North London derby kicks off, 8,000 kms away, a similar rivalry, played out in almost exact circumstances would have been settled. The I-League would’ve wrapped up for the season, and one way or another, the trophy will head east. For now, how far east is the matter that needs settling.

The irony is unmissable, a team from the north east standing in the way of another looking to bring the title to the land for the first time ever. Aizawl need just that one point, that one elusive point, to make sure the established order is broken, and cap off the most insane 14 months in the history of underdogs in sport.

“From the beginning of the season we have taken it one match at a time and tomorrow is going to be no different,” Aizawl coach Khalid Jamil said, a closure to his press conference, the last one before the title decider. It may not be. Routine is routine, and footballers are the masters of it. There is no need to change a winning formula, and Jamil isn’t tinkering with the tape in sight. In some areas though, he will be forced to.

In a stereotypical twist of ills that beset the underdog, Aizawl will have to do it without their captain, Alfred Jaryan, and the ever reliable full back Ashutosh Mehta. Jaryan and Mahmoud Al Amna’s midfield partnership is what has made this super team even more super. Al Amna is the hype man to Jaryan’s sombreness. The Ice Cube to his Dr Dre.

Jaryan has played every game of Aizawl’s unbelievable season, and has been the responsible, stable leader steering them into the home lap. But now, for the game that really matters, he is missing. Al Amna is on his own. Anyone with even a passing interest in football obviously wants to know what happens now. It is less a question of sports than a Zen koan: what’s the sound of one hand clapping?

Enough about Aizawl though. There are two teams playing this of course. And the second is a team on a strange path, who aren’t really in form, but not quite out either. Lajong have won just one game of their last five (edging out DSK Shivajians on the second weekend of the month), but have lost only once in the period — to Bengaluru FC in Bengaluru. Three draws, then. And as draws go, this one could be as valuable as any for Aizawl.

Shillong Lajong coach Thangboi Singto isn’t giving it to them so easily though. He has insisted over the week that Shillong will not, and cannot, just let them walk away with the title, and he reiterated that in his final press conference before the game.

Singto’s team will line up in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, and will be compact defensively. Singto hasn’t lost too often to his counterpart either, a fact that Khalid Jamil hasn’t missed. “I always find it very difficult to beat Lajong or play against Lajong because they are a tough side to break down. They play very compact. When you come to play here, it is tougher, because they are great on the attack and their striker has been on super form this season.”

Lajong are predictably strong at home — thirteen of their 25 points have come in Shillong — but in all fairness, Aizawl won’t feel too much away. They are used to the playing surface, and the altitude is a non-issue. The fans in the stands will be almost equally distributed (or so they say).

Jamil’s team are a plucky side away, and have three wins and two draws on the road. Jamil also is a reasonable man, and it is fair to say, that he will not look to try and attack his way to the title. No one will berate him for a more judicious, defensive approach than usual.

No one, except the Kolkata people of course. All this build up to this match is made without actually even considering a loss for Mohun Bagan, and that is a fact that must not be ignored. Chennai City FC have little to play for, considering they are safe from relegation and have secured a Federation Cup place. And teams with little to lose, rarely lose. Bagan obviously cannot afford to play the game with an eye on Shillong.

Jamil understands the pressure his players dealing with their new found stardom are under. He also understands how important it is to not get carried away and throw away their one chance at glory. “The coach has to be under control,” he said.

Needless to say this will be a game of passion, pace and preposterous goals (one can only hope). Aizawl will be champions in every situation other than a Shillong win. And if that does happen, tomorrow will be different. Monday will be a strange new dawn.

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Updated Date: Apr 30, 2017 12:49:17 IST