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I-League title up for grabs as Aizawl, Mohun Bagan lock horns

Aizawl FC v Mohun Bagan

Saturday, April 22, 2 pm IST

Pld - 3, W- 1, L - 2, GF - 5, GA - 7

When the 2017 I-League season began, Mohun Bagan were pinned right among the top contenders for the title, and deservedly so.

Bagan won the league in 2015 and came within a whisker of a successful defence last year. They only lost two matches, 2-1 margins to arch-rivals East Bengal in Siliguri, and against Aizawl FC in Aizawl. The teams met again in the Federation Cup final later in the summer, where Bagan ran out 5-0 winners in Guwahati.

Aizawl were officially a relegated team from the league by then, reinstated only because of the withdrawal of a slew of teams. That the team coached by former Mumbai FC coach Khalid Jamil are potentially one win away from picking up the first league title by a north-eastern club must count as one of the greatest fairytale stories in Indian sport.

The equation on Saturday is simple. If Mohun Bagan win by any margin, they win the league. If Aizawl win by a margin of two goals or more, then they become the champions. Any other result will see the title chase stay alive for the final weekend of games.

The biggest contest to look forward to will be the pace and verve of Aizawl midfielders like Brandon Vanlalremdika, Laldanmawia Ralte, Mahmoud Al Amna, and Jayesh Rane against the tried and tested Sony Norde, Katsumi Yusa and the increasingly influential Prabir Das. Both teams also have one foreign striker as their top scorer, both with seven goals for the season, and it would be intriguing to see if either Kamo Bayi or Darryl Duffy can add to their tally.

Also see: JCT's late dash, Dempo's maiden crown, and a BFC party that went wrong

Churchill Brothers v Chennai City FC

Saturday, April 22, 4:30 pm

Pld - 1, D - 1, GF - 1, GA - 1

Placed sixth and eighth, respectively, despite being level on 17 points, Churchill Brothers will have a lot to play for, as will Chennai City FC when the two teams meet at the Tilak Maidan in Vasco.

Churchill Brothers are the only team in the bottom half of the draw that can be overtaken by Mumbai FC from the relegation zone, and that doesn't enjoy the immunity offered to corporate teams like their opponents on Saturday.

With a potentially tricky last away match to in-form Bengaluru FC, Derrick Pereira's team will go for three points to end all mathematical chances of Mumbai catching up with them. The other carrot on offer for both teams is finishing in the top eight, in order to qualify for the Federation Cup in Cuttack in May, and even a draw might help both teams pull away from Minerva Punjab and Mumbai FC, both of whom are on 12 points.

Expect this match to be one of patience, where Churchill Brothers might look to use the pace of players like Chesterpoul Lyngdoh, Brandon Fernandes and Anthony Wolfe to counter the more physical attack and midfield of Chennai.

Bengaluru FC v DSK Shivajians

Saturday, April 22, 7 pm

Pld - 3, W - 1, D - 2, GF - 7, GA - 3

Bengaluru FC fielded a sub-par starting eleven on April 1 against Mohun Bagan, and were beaten soundly 3-0, yet that match has marked a turning point in what had been a tepid season up to then. Bengaluru have won four matches on the trot, in India and across Asia, and won their last match in the AFC Cup against Dhaka Abahani despite missing some key players.

DSK Shivajians have been one of most improved teams of this year's league, playing a tactically sound game under coach Dave Rogers. Their two away wins -- the most recent one last week effectively ending East Bengal's title aspirations -- are at par with teams like Bengaluru and Mohun Bagan.

A lot was expected from India internationals like Holicharan Narzary, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Jerry Lalrinzuala, but the real revelation in the 1-0 win in Barasat was attacking midfielder Jerry Mawihmingthanga. His contest with the centre-back combination of John Johnson and Juan Antonio might make for fascinating viewing. Bengaluru's coach Albert Roca will look at this match as an opportunity to finish strong and is unlikely to tinker too much with his best eleven.

East Bengal v Minerva Punjab

Sunday, April 23, 4:30 pm

Pld - 1, W - 1, GF - 5

A little over a month ago, East Bengal were firmly in the saddle in pursuit of their first I-League title, and their first national league since 2004.

In the cauldron of competition that is Indian football, a month can be a long time, though, and four defeats later, the job of coach Trevor Morgan and the club's title hopes are both gone, and they have only their own inability to pick themselves up when down to blame for it.

Facing a team that they had beaten 5-0 in Ludhiana on January 29 in the middle of a six-match winning streak will be scant consolation for East Bengal, who have lost their last four games on the bounce.

Mridul Banerjee has taken over as coach, and must look at the last two games as a valuable opportunity to take some form into the Federation Cup, a tournament that Minerva would be desperately keen to qualify for, and can only conceivably do it with two straight wins.

East Bengal have had some injury concerns, especially around talismanic midfielder Wedson Anselme, and Banerjee's team selection on the day will be crucial against a Minerva team that relies on the pace of Anirudh Thapa, Krishna Pandit and Nigerian Victor Amobi to hit on the counter-attacks. Willis Plaza will be serving the second game of his two-match suspension for violent conduct in the derby against Mohun Bagan

Minerva played the waiting game against Mohun Bagan at home last weekend, and almost executed their plans to frustrate their opponents perfectly. They might be expected to adopt a similar strategy away to East Bengal.

Mumbai FC v Shillong Lajong

Sunday, April 23, 7 pm

Pld - 13, P - 5, D - 2, L - 6, GF - 18, GA - 23

It must count as sheer coincidence that Mumbai FC, a team that its former coach Khalid Jamil was able to keep afloat since their initiation into the I-League in 2008, are facing the genuine prospect of relegation in the same season that Jamil is on the cusp of making a history with a team that operates on a similar low budget in the league.

If Mumbai have to survive the drop, they must hope for some help from Churchill Brothers, but first they need to pick up three points in their next match, something they haven't done since January 15.

They face Shillong Lajong, who are now assured of meeting their pre-season target of bettering their best-ever sixth place on the points table, with their 24 points and fifth place not under threat from any other contenders, three of whom are on 17.

Lajong also have the joint second-best away record in the league in terms of wins -- only East Bengal's five away wins are more than Aizawl and Lajong's three each -- and will look to league top scorer Aser Dipanda to add to his tally of 10 goals for the season.

Where Mumbai went wrong this season, especially after starting off with two impressive wins in January, will be one to ponder over once the dust has settled, but Spanish coach Oscar Bruzon must look to the experience of players like Victorino Fernandes, Thoi Singh, Pratesh Shirodkar, Mehrajuddin Wadoo and Trinidad and Tobago World Cupper Densill Theobald to lift the spirits of the team.

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