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I-League preview: Aizawl hunt glory, BFC hope for turnaround

East Bengal had to settle for a 1-1 draw against Aizawl FC in their I-League opener. AIFF

Mohun Bagan v DSK Shivajians

Saturday, February 18, 4:30 pm

Pld - 3, W - 1, D - 2, GF - 5, GA - 3

Mohun Bagan return to the Rabindra Sarobar stadium in Kolkata after a goalless draw in Mumbai, and come up against DSK Shivajians -- the team that had arrested their four-match winning streak in the I-League in January in the away leg. Bagan have won just one out of three games played post that, and there is no doubt that the fluency they showed in the games leading up to the 0-0 draw in Pune has been missing since.

Shivajians, on the other hand, have been building up some good momentum of their own. They lost their first two matches of the season, but only lost one more game over the next seven. They might be one of five teams to have scored an average of less than one goal per match, but they are also one of three teams to have shipped in fewer than an average of a goal per game. Unsurprisingly, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are the other two. This match could prove to be a tight one again, with Shivajians looking to contain the Bagan midfield and attacking line, relying purely on the pace of their wingers and strikers to hit on counters.

Mumbai FC v Bengaluru FC

Saturday, February 18, 7 pm

Pld - 7, W - 1, L - 2, D - 4, GF - 7, GA - 9

Mumbai FC remain the last team that Bengaluru FC defeated in the league, but the downward spirals of both teams since makes this a fascinating battle. Santosh Kashyap's Mumbai went into the match in Bengaluru on the back of successive wins, but then went on a five-match losing streak.

Mumbai would be enthused by having held Mohun Bagan in their last match at the Cooperage on February 15, though. Kashyap set his team up on a fairly defensive 5-3-1-1 formation, but it appeared to pay dividends as both Bagan wings were given lesser space to work with, and Mumbai even created their own chances on the counter. They had a goal disallowed for offside, but were defensively sound after a long time in the league, registering their first clean sheet in eight matches. Last season's corresponding fixture saw Mumbai get their solitary win over Bengaluru in the league's history, but they must keep the in-form Sunil Chhetri quiet to repeat that result.

Chennai City FC v Shillong Lajong

Sunday, February 19, 7 pm

Pld - 1, L - 1, GA - 2

Chennai City FC were Shillong Lajong's third scalp when they met in Shillong earlier this season -- part of Lajong's four wins in a row that started their home campaign for the season. Lajong are also coming off a morale-boosting draw away to East Bengal in Siliguri, and will look at this as their best opportunity to register their first win on the road this season.

Chennai drew their previous match against Churchill Brothers and are unbeaten in two games under new coach V Soundararajan, but in truth, the team is still far from gelling enough as a unit. Prasanth Karuthadathkuni has been one of the more impressive players in midfield, but the supply from the wing-backs and from Edwin Vanspaul has been poor. Their defence has also been one of the poorest in the league, and since their loss to Lajong, they have conceded in all the matches they have played. Keeping things quiet in defence will be key against a team for which Aser Dipanda continues to be the league's top scorer.

Churchill Brothers v Minerva Punjab

Sunday, February 19, 7 pm

Pld - 1, D - 1

Minerva Punjab renew acquaintances with Churchill Brothers less than three weeks after a goalless draw the first time they met in Ludhiana, and the fact that both teams occupy the last two slots going into the tenth round will make this match a fascinating battle.

Minerva have been understandably one of the most conservative teams this season, and their only win came in a home game against Mumbai FC when teenagers Baoringdao Bodo and Anirudh Thapa stepped up to find the net for one of the two debut teams this season. That defensive approach might be more difficult to implement at the Tilak Maidan, especially against a team that might be behind Minerva by a point, but has scored more and conceded fewer goals in their matches this season. Brandon Fernandes again underscored his utility in midweek against Chennai City by converting a direct free-kick, and he could have another good outing, especially if the visitors get overtly defensive in their approach.

Aizawl FC v East Bengal

Monday, February 20, 2 pm

Pld - 3, D - 1, L - 2, GF - 3, GA - 6

The match that effectively began the I-League season this year could well prove to be the most pivotal game of the league just yet, especially considering the consequences at the top of the table.

Khalid Jamil helped Aizawl earn their first I-League point against East Bengal in Barasat in January -- though they really should have converted it into three against a sub-par opposition on the day, but for a late equaliser by defender Ivan Bukenya. Later in the season, they took the game to Mohun Bagan, and were unlucky to be at the receiving end of a 3-2 score line in a match where more refereeing decisions went against them than for Bagan. Aizawl also played a terrific half of football against Bengaluru FC in midweek, and again conceded a point to the individual brilliance of Sunil Chhetri in a match they could have put to bed with more incisive finishing.

In spite of these close shaves, Aizawl have a 5-1 record from their remaining six games, with a 2-0 loss away to Chennai City as the only blip in their performance graph. In Mahmoud Al Amna, they have one of the most consistent foreign midfielders in the league, and the Syrian's midfield duel with Wedson Anselme could be one of the deciding factors in this match. East Bengal have found a way to combat every situation this season, though, and Aizawl defenders will need to be at their best to deny space to the likes of Willis Plaza and Robin Singh. If Aizawl can pick up three points from this clash, it will be the first defeat for Trevor Morgan's side this season, but more importantly it will also put them within a point of East Bengal, thus throwing the title chase wide open.

All stats courtesy Gautam Roy, football historian and media manager of East Bengal football club.