Shillong Lajong FC start their I-League campaign on January 7 at the home of the defending champions Bengaluru FC, but head coach Thangboi Singto wants his young team to take this opportunity to challenge themselves and put up a good show against the team which made the AFC Cup final as recently as two months back.
"It's a privilege to be playing Bengaluru FC. They are one of the best sides going around not just in Indian football but also in all of Asia, and this will be a good test of character for our boys," says Singto. "They have some of the best Indian players and foreigners as well, and this match will help us understand what the areas we need to improve in are."
Singto, who took over as head coach of the Shillong-based team in 2013, wants his team to blank out all distractions about a possible merger of the I-League and the ISL, a competition which a majority of his players participated in, representing the NorthEast United franchise.
"It's a new season, with a lot of thoughts swirling about regarding Indian football. We have a young, dynamic team and hopefully they will show that they have grown as individuals and as a team," says Singto, pointing out that preparation time was less for his team as most of his Indian players were occupied with the ISL right up to the first week of December.
Lajong retained only one foreign player in striker Fabio Pena from Brazil, and his other foreign players - former Aizawl FC midifielder Yuta Kinowaki, former DSK Shivajians striker Aser Dipanda and Romanian defender Dan Ignat -all joined the team late. "Aizawl FC may not have had a great season, but Yuta Kinowaki caught our eye because of his strength and stability in midfield.
Dipanda was someone we needed just to get us goals. Last year, we scored the least number of goals," says Singto, whose team managed just 14 goals from 16 matches in 2016. "I understand Dan is the first European player to be playing in Shillong, and he has experience of having played in Jordan and Oman other than Romania. We thought that experience of having played in Asia before, plus his 6' 2" frame will give us someone to marshal the defence."
In six previous meetings against Bengaluru FC, Lajong have only recorded one win - a 3-0 triumph in March 2014 in Shillong - and the only other time they have avoided defeat was a 1-1 draw at home the following year. If they have to take their first points off the champions in Bengaluru, they will need a big contribution in central midfield from their latest acquisition, 33-year-old former India international Rocus Lamare.
"Shillong Lajong is a team from the north-east, and when we analysed our squad, we realised we needed somebody who could be a big influence on and off the field," says Singto. "Rocus is someone who began at Lajong, then has played for India, won I-League and other tournaments with Salgoacar. He's a local player that we expect to become a mainstay in the team."
Singto, who hopes for support wherever the team goes and plays, agrees that there might be some fans from the north-east who could be rooting for the Bengaluru players from that region. He takes pride in pointing out that three first-team regulars for the champions - goalkeeper Lathuammawia Ralte, left-back Lalchhuanmawia and midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh have all played for Lajong in their early years.
There might be an omen for Lajong in the fact that the last time Bengaluru FC played any Indian opposition was in the Federation Cup against Aizawl FC, and were beaten both in Aizawl as well as at home over the two legs, but Singto refuses to look too far ahead in terms of his target for the season. "Our best result has been sixth among 13 teams in 2013-14. This year, with 10 teams in the fray in a challenging field, we must improve on that and finish in the top four or five teams."