<
>

Shootout in Aizawl: The match that could win the I-League

If Saturday's match between Aizawl FC and Mohun Bagan ends in a draw or if the former win by one goal, the I-League title race will be decided next weekend. AIFF Media

Match stats

When: Saturday, April 22, 2017

Start time: 2pm IST

Where: Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, Aizawl

What's riding on this game?

Simply put, the title. If Mohun Bagan win the match, they win the title; if Aizawl FC win by two goals, they are champions. If it's a draw, or Aizawl win by one goal, the title race goes down to the last round of matches the following weekend.

What's all this noise about Aizawl FC? Who are they?

Aizawl FC were founded in 1984 in the north-eastern Indian state of Mizoram, but only found some direction in professional football as recently as 2011. They were given the clearance to play the second division of the I-League, the officially recognised national league of India, in 2012, and first made the cut to the top division in 2015-16. Their first season saw them finish eighth -- one place above the drop zone in the nine-team competition that year -- yet were relegated because the bottom-placed team, DSK Shivajians, had an immunity from relegation for three years since they were a corporate-backed team that was given direct entry to the league. A number of clubs backed out before the 2016-17 league began, citing displeasure over the uncertainty about the I-League's future, and that allowed Aizawl to be reinstated among the 10 teams for the current season.

Should they go on to win the league, it would be very similar to Leicester City's Premier League win in 2015-16, or even Denmark's European Championships triumph in 1992, where the Danes were only able to participate due to the late withdrawal of erstwhile Yugoslavia, and ended up beating world champions Germany in the final.

How did they even make it this far?

Aizawl FC began their season under former Mumbai FC coach Khalid Jamil -- who also brought some quality players from outside Mizoram with him in the pre-season transfer window -- with a 1-1 draw away to East Bengal. They have only lost three matches in the entire season, and their 10 wins are the most among all teams. Their home record is exceptional, as seven wins and a 1-1 draw against defending champions Bengaluru FC have meant 22 out of 24 possible points when playing in Aizawl.

They typically set themselves up with a solid defence and a fluid midfield and attack ahead of them. I-League teams are allowed four foreign players, and each of their non-Indian players has been exceptional -- defender Kingsley Eze has only missed one match due to a suspension, captain Alfred Jaryan of Liberia has played each minute of every game and adjusted from a striker's role to one of a holding midfielder, Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna has been one of the best playmakers in the league, and striker Kamo Bayi has led the attacking line with seven goals. Aizawl's 22 goals are the joint third-best among the 10 teams in the league, just three behind Mohun Bagan, while their 13 goals conceded are also bettered in parsimony by only Bagan, their opponents on Saturday.

Who are they up against and how have their opponents done this season?

Mohun Bagan are one of the glamour clubs of Indian football -- with a history that dates back to 1889 -- and are based in Kolkata, often considered the spiritual home of football in India. They were also the first team to win three national league titles in 2002, but then had to wait for 13 years before they could reclaim the top division title. Runners-up last year, they have had a good 2017, having lost only one game in the I-League.

Bagan's rise to the top has been on the back of a consistent display at home, where they have an identical win-draw record in as many games as Aizawl. Their weakness has often been on the road, their 1-0 win over Minerva Punjab the previous weekend was only the second away win for the season for coach Sanjoy Sen. They have drawn a blank in half of their eight matches on the road, but a draw on Saturday would be a favourable result for Mohun Bagan -- who lost their last continental match at home 1-0 against Maziya of Maldives, but have had four wins and one draw in all other matches in April. Bagan's nine clean sheets are the most among all teams in this I-League, and first-choice goalkeeper Debjit Majumder has started eight of those nine matches.

Who are the players on either side to watch out for?

Considering that a goal or two could not just decide the course of the match but also the championship, both defences will watch out for the top scorer on either side. Scotsman Darryl Duffy has seven goals for Mohun Bagan, and Bayi has the same number of goals for Aizawl. While Bayi scored a brace in Aizawl's 3-1 win over Churchill Brothers last weekend, Duffy also had two goals against his name when these teams last met in February. There will be strategies to counter a number of players on either side, but it would be fair to say most of the defensive ploys would look to counter Duffy and Bayi as opposition attackers.

What kind of match can we expect on Saturday?

Aizawl will want to leave nothing to chance, and should be expected to field an attacking line-up and hit Mohun Bagan with their pace and skill. They have the players to execute the patient build-ups and pacy counter-attacks that Jamil's team typically approach matches in Aizawl with.

His opposite number, Sen, typically plays a conservative formation, with two holding midfielders supporting wide players Sony Norde and Katsumi Yusa and two centre-forwards. In recent matches, he has experimented a bit with personnel, often starting with one holding midfielder and using more of the width of the pitch to bring his young wingers into play. Part of his change in plans has been necessitated by the injury to Under-23 left-back Subhasish Bose -- each team in the I-League has to start with at least one Indian player under the age of 23 -- and Bose's replacement in that slot, Raju Gaikwad, has been a somewhat weak link in the defence. Nonetheless, given the equation, Mohun Bagan might prefer to sit back and rely purely on counter-attacks.

There are no major injury concerns for Aizawl, while Bagan would have wanted experienced midfielder Pronay Halder to be available for this game. Neither side has any suspensions either, though Aizawl's Alfred Jaryan and Ashutosh Mehta will miss the last round if they see another yellow card, as will Sehnaj Singh and Prabir Das of Mohun Bagan.

What is the equation facing each team on Saturday?

The form book would suggest Aizawl are capable of pulling this off, though the equation facing both teams means that their opponents could potentially have an easier route to the title and might plan for this game accordingly.

The first differentiating factor among teams on the points table is head-to-head, then the goal difference in the matches between the teams, then the number of goals scored, and finally goal difference. Mohun Bagan won the first leg between these teams in Kolkata on February 4 by a 3-2 margin, and hence will need just a win to assure themselves of the title they last won in 2015. Aizawl must win by two goals or more if they want to sew up the title on Saturday itself. A draw or a one-goal margin win for Aizawl will keep the chase alive for the last round, where Aizawl travel to fellow north-easterners Shillong Lajong, while Bagan have a comparatively easier home game against Chennai City FC.

What would this mean for Indian football if Aizawl pull it off?

In numerical terms, Aizawl FC will become the ninth team to win what has always been a very open national league since its inception in 1996-97. But in terms of being a team with a modest budget and the sheer unexpectedness of such a win, this will be unprecedented. The future of the I-League itself is in doubt, with the sport's governing body All India Football Federation (AIFF) and their marketing and commercial partners keen on elevating the Indian Super League (ISL) into the top division of football in India and making the I-League a second division, effectively. As of now, Aizawl do not feature in the plans for the top division and their winning the title might delay, if not completely alter, those plans. Aizawl FC bring passion, support and a genuine history of grooming local young talent in Mizoram to the table as a football club, and if they can combine that with national success, it could make a lot of clubs rethink their strategy about how to approach football, besides the usual stakeholders of the sport.

What does the winner/runner-up get next season?

Besides the prize money of Rs 1,00,00,000 (approximately $150,000), the I-League champions are guaranteed a spot in Asian Football Confederation (AFC) events for the following year. They earn a chance for an AFC Champions League playoff, though no Indian club has made the tournament proper of that event yet. Elimination at the playoffs stage ensures a chance to play in the AFC Cup, and the second spot in the AFC Cup is reserved for the champions of the Federation Cup, the Indian version of the FA Cup.

In the past, most recently in 2014-15, the I-League and Federation Cup crowns have been held by the same team, which allowed I-League runners-up East Bengal to take the one slot behind Bengaluru FC that year. The next Federation Cup is scheduled for May, and whoever finishes second in the league could still find themselves playing in Asia if the league champions also do the Cup double a month from now. The Federation Cup final a year ago also featured these teams, with Mohun Bagan winning 5-0.

Where can this game be followed?

If you are in and around Aizawl, the only place to head to on Saturday afternoon would be the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium. For everyone else, the television broadcast will be available on TEN2 at 2 pm, and ESPN.in will also have a live blog for the entirety of the game.