A three-horse race in the I-League has made things interesting. In the race to the top, Aizawl FC and East Bengal kept their hopes alive while Mohun Bagan bottled up. Here is breaking down the contenders and their tactics in round 12 of the I-League.
Beat Shillong Lajong 2-1
Trevor Morgan and his team should be commended for getting a tricky away win against a very good Shillong Lajong team, though tactically this was one of their less convincing victories.
They lined up in a virtual 4-5-1, with an unchanged attack and a back four, and only Mohammad Rafique being brought in to replace the talismanic Wedson Anselme. With East Bengal winning only once in all away fixtures at Shillong, Anselme's absence made Morgan employ a more fluid midfield, and it was this fluidity that helped them race off to a 2-0 lead at half-time.
Australian striker Chris Payne would regularly swap positions with Robin Singh, and was in goal-poaching positions for both his strikes. Under-22 player Nikhil Poojary has been used very well in the last two games on the left flank rather than his usual right, since his work rate and inclination to take on rival defenders is a good asset to complement the more direct game of both Robin and Payne.
East Bengal's defence on the day was a bit poor, though, with centre-back Ivan Bukenya appearing jaded and the wing-backs Robin Gurung and Robert Lalthlamuana leaving far too many gaps between them. Lajong were able to send several incisive long balls in, and dealing with such crosses has been an area of strength for the Kolkata side this season. It wasn't the case against Lajong, and they were lucky to get away by conceding just once from that routine.
Beat Mumbai FC 2-0
Aizawl FC lined up in their favoured 4-1-4-1, with Kamo Bayi operating as the lone striker, and Alfred Jaryan shoring up the midfield as he has done for a majority of the season.
Aizawl were expected to dominate the game against Mumbai, and they certainly did that for most part. Laldenmawia Ralte from the right and Brandon Vanlalremdika from the left provided enough zip and commitment. Mahmoud Al Amna and his partnership with Jayesh Rane kept pushing Mumbai further back, and the goals that Aizawl got were down to the fact that Bayi was a bit faster to respond than the Mumbai defenders, particularly Afghanistan's Djelaluddin Shartiyar.
Aizawl keeper Albino Gomes had a strange match in goal, though, including one passage of play where he misjudged the spin on a harmless ball that bounced ahead of him. There were some other deficiencies in defence for Aizawl that they must address, especially with a few season-defining away games to come next. If they have to stay in the hunt for the title, the bare minimum would be to ensure they don't lose too often. If they can sneak in the odd win, they will continue to keep the pressure on all comers.
Lost 2-1 to Churchill Brothers
Mohun Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen played the biggest gambit among the three title-chasing coaches, with a bold 4-1-3-2 formation that he had hitherto avoided, in a significant game away to Churchill Brothers. He played Bikramjit Singh alone in the holding midfield role, and gave Prabir Das the license to operate along the right flank, pushing Katsumi Yusa back into a central position that the Japanese midfielder doesn't seem to enjoy as much as the full width of the pitch.
For the first quarter of an hour, Bagan were like a rabbit caught in the headlights, unable to cope with an energetic start by Churchill Brothers, who have significantly upped their game since Derrick Pereira has come on board as coach.
It was Norde's brilliance that put Bagan ahead and credit must be given to Prabir for his attacking instincts. Mohun Bagan's biggest weakness this season has been their defence and that is where Anas Edathodika and Eduardo Ferreira showed again that they aren't always on the same page, allowing Anthony Wolfe to ghost in for the equaliser. A second lapse not long after allowed Lyngdoh a whiff of goal, and brought an end to Bagan's unbeaten run across all competitions in 2017.
On hindsight, Sanjoy Sen might have preferred starting with an additional holding player in midfield. But he must have deemed it a risk worth taking with two matches in hand over Aizawl and East Bengal.