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I-League: Chennai City FC, East Bengal in fray to be crowned champions as intriguing season heads for dramatic finale

Here we go again.

Another I-League final day for us to savour. By 7 pm on Saturday, either Chennai City FC or East Bengal will be crowned the new champions of India. A potentially huge day for both the clubs.

For Chennai City, a club resurrected as recently as 2013, it would be a first national league triumph — the sort of success that seemed well out of reach only 12 months ago when it fought off relegation by the skin of its teeth. As for East Bengal, it would be the Kolkata club’s first national league trophy since 2003 (it had won the erstwhile ‘National Football League’) and it would finally end their fans’ long-running misery.

 I-League: Chennai City FC, East Bengal in fray to be crowned champions as intriguing season heads for dramatic finale

File image of Chennai City FC players. Image courtesy: Twitter @ILeagueOfficial

The equation is simple. East Bengal (39 points), who travel to Kozhikode to face a struggling Gokulam Kerala FC, must win to stand any chance and then hope that Chennai City (40 points) fail to beat Minerva Punjab in Coimbatore — which has been Chennai’s adopted home this season. If the teams finish level on points, Chennai will lift the trophy due to a superior head-to-head record.

We have gotten used to such a narrative in recent years of the I-League — the new vs the old, the modern-day rebels vs the traditional giants.

Last year, young Minerva Punjab won its first national league title on the final day by fending off three other teams, including East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. In 2017, tiny Mizoram club Aizawl FC pipped Bagan to its first national league title on the final day as well, while in 2015 Bagan travelled to face Bengaluru FC and got the draw they needed to snatch the title away from their opponents.

That this season’s title race has come down to the final day is quite a surprise in itself. Chennai City appeared to be running away at the top till a blip in December saw the team dropping points in three consecutive matches. More recently, narrow defeats in Srinagar and Goa have pegged them back. On the other hand, East Bengal made a poor start — three consecutive defeats after a couple of opening wins — and slowly found their groove over the course of a troubled season.

This season has been intriguing in a different way than usual. Contrary to their respective statures, Chennai City have carried with them an aura of champions whereas East Bengal have been the embattled chasers chipping away at the leaders. Chennai’s campaign is the result of exceptional planning and completely embracing a new football philosophy, while the Kolkata club’s season is characterised by overcoming obstacles and finding answers along the way.

Under Singaporean coach Akbar Nawas, Chennai have found success in a wonderfully stylish short-passing game almost unrivalled in Indian football this season — only Indian Super League side FC Goa can lay claim to matching the aesthetic standards of Chennai's play. Nawas joined Chennai at the end of last season as a Technical Consultant before taking over coaching duties. By mid-2018, with the help of then assistant coach Jordi Gris Vila, he had handpicked local players and a few Spaniards who were technically proficient to carry out his plans on the pitch. It sounds simple, yes, but it has been executed to near perfection.

Chennai’s four key Spaniards — Pedro Manzi, Sandro Rodriguez, Nestor Jesus and Roberto Eslava — have delivered more than what could be asked of them. Forward Manzi has banged in 20 goals, including a quite astonishing four hat-tricks. Midfielder Sandro has scored nine times and has converted free kicks for fun. Midfielder Nestor too has chipped in with eight goals, including key ones against Bagan and East Bengal. Central defender Eslava, meanwhile, has been a rock at the back.

But Indian players, including the local Tamil Nadu players, have played a starring role as well. Not until the seventh game of this season did Nawas use his quota of five foreigners in the starting XI — in fact, he started with only three foreigners in two of the first six matches. This tells you how effective Indians have been for Chennai City.

Gaurav Bora has slotted into an unfamiliar central defensive role with success. Left-back Ajithkumar Kamaraj’s darts down the wing have been exciting to watch and effective in stretching teams. Edwin Sydney Vanspaul has been solid at right back, and has covered for his teammates in midfield too. Romario Jesuraj has been exceptional on the right wing, while midfield combos involving the likes of Pravitto Raju, Charles Anandraj, Michael Regin and Mashoor Shereef have been almost always effective — matches against Real Kashmir standout as exceptions.

Only Real Kashmir, with their physical style of play, and Churchill Brothers, inspired by Willis Plaza’s goals, have beaten Chennai City, who still remain favourites heading into the final day.

East Bengal players celebrate a goal. Image courtesy: Twitter @ILeagueOfficial

East Bengal players celebrate a goal. Image courtesy: Twitter @ILeagueOfficial

Meanwhile, East Bengal’s run of eight matches without defeat — seven of them victories — has pulled the team back into contention for the title. Perhaps if the team had a smoother start to the season, the story would have been very different. The club had plenty of troubles with its foreign contingent.

For starters, East Bengal could not complete the signing of a sixth foreigner due to a transfer ban imposed on them in September. Adding to these woes was an injury to Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna (he was released in January without a single appearance), the poor relationship between French midfielder Kassim Aidara and coach Alejandro Menendez, which meant Aidara did not start in the first four games and was rumoured to be leaving the club (he stayed on and has started all games since), and Mexican striker Enrique Esqueda’s mid-season injury which saw him miss six matches.

This meant that the team played with only four foreigners or less until the 10th match of the season, at which point new signings Jamie Santos and Antonio Dovale finally allowed the team to play to its full strength. Since then, East Bengal have only lost one match — which, unfortunately for the club, was the crucial fixture against Chennai City. Even the performances of central defender Johnny Acosta, the Costa Rican who played in the 2018 World Cup, had left much to be desired though his form improved as the season grew older. He was even dropped for one game after the team conceded six goals in three consecutive losses.

Among Indian players, striker Jobby Justin, who has scored nine goals, has acquired a cult status among the fans especially after his heroics in the derby. Central midfielder Lalrindika Ralte, the set-piece specialist, has finally delivered closer to what is expected of him, while right winger Laldanmawia Ralte has also chipped in with seven goals. It’s a sign of how well coach Menendez has done in the circumstances that he has sealed a two-year contract extension last week.

In theory, Chennai City should have enough to see this over the line. Mid-table Minerva have nothing but pride to play for and have eyes on the AFC Cup and the Super Cup. Chennai have shown enough character throughout the season, in clawing back deficits several times this season. The team has also been dominant at home — only losing once, which was to Real Kashmir after one of the worst penalty decisions any team could suffer.

But it’s the final day of the season and with half a mind on the scoreline elsewhere, stranger things can happen. Either way, it will be a day of great romance in the I-League. We will either have a young and stylish champion or an old one that will send the game into nostalgic overdrive.

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Updated Date: Mar 09, 2019 13:16:31 IST