The 12th edition of the I-League kicks off tomorrow and for perhaps the very last season, it remains India's top club competition with the champions qualifying for the AFC Champions League.
The cloud around the league's future is largely due to strong implications that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will jump ship to the Indian Super League (ISL) next season and it is no surprise that these two sides are the favourites to win the I-League title in potentially their last campaign.
East Bengal has been buoyed by their newly acquired sponsor, Quess, who have invested heavily in the Red and Golds allowing them to build a very expensive squad. Although they have not been allowed to sign a sixth foreigner owing to a transfer ban handed by the AIFF, they will feel very confident of their chances given the quality in their current squad.
Following their failure to win the Calcutta Football League (CFL) a ninth successive time, East Bengal has roped in Spanish coach Alejandro Menendez Garcia, who is a former Real Madrid Castilla manager. A winner of five trophies in Thailand, Garcia, believes in the typical Spanish style of tiki-taka which starts right from the goalkeeper.
In goal, Rakshit Dagar's arrival from Minerva Punjab has given East Bengal stability after a shaky season for their custodians' in the last term. Johnny Acosta, who represented Costa Rica in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, had a difficult start to his life in India but will be relieved by the arrival of Borja Gomez Perez to partner him at central defence as the duo speak the same language and thus communication will not be an issue.
The midfield looks pretty strong with Syrian Al Amna expected to pull the strings in the possession-based system. Al Amna's ability to control the pace of the game will be key and Kassim Aidara, sitting in front of a miserly back four, will be tasked with recycling possession for Amna. Up front, striker Enrique Esqueda might well light up the league with his proven goal-scoring ability.
Anything less than title triumph will disappoint their demanding fans and the board.
Sankarlal Chakraborty has already pulled off the CFL ending East Bengal's eight-year run and that has naturally fuelled expectations. The unassuming coach likes to play a good passing game, keeping the ball on the ground, pulling the opposition in before spraying the ball out wide.
Mohun Bagan's build-ups have been quite eye-catchy in the CFL wherein players have looked for their teammates in better positions instead of having a pop at goal. As a result, a high percentage of shots have resulted in goals – the build-up to Pintu Mahata's goal in the CFL 2018 derby is an example.
In terms of the team, Bagan will hope their captain Shilton Paul rediscovers his mojo in goal because the defence, where Eze Kingsley is set to partner Kim Kima, looks slightly thin if one of them is forced to sit out. But on the positive side for the coach, even while pressed, the defenders find passing alleys, instead of hoofing the ball upfield, which help the team retain possession.
Midfield onwards Mohun Bagan really starts purring. The Japanese Yuta Kinowaki is good passer of the ball making him the coach's player and along with Sourav Das who was very impressive in the CFL, is set to man the centre of the park. Pintu Mahata's outstanding CFL campaign is set to make him a surety down one of the flanks with the deadly goalscoring duo of Dipanda Dicka and Henry Kisekka completing the front two.
Mohun Bagan has also signed an exciting Egyptian attacker named Omar Elhusseiny but their real trump card would be the fitness of Sony Norde. If the Haitian can get into his stride, he will take some stopping and as witnessed in the past seasons, hardly anyone knows how to.
The last two seasons of the I-League have seen underdog stories and it will not be surprising to see another one unfolding this season. But one cannot predict an underdog story which is why it captures the world's imagination.
Thus, walking into the season, the Kolkata giants remain the favourites and the winner of the I-League might well be determined by the Kolkata Derbies that will be played on the December 16 and January 21 next year.