I-League preview: Shillong takes centre stage as Aizawl look to make a point

ESPN previews the final round of matches in the 2017 I-League season, with Aizawl FC on the cusp of clinching their first ever title.

Shillong Lajong v Aizawl FC

Sunday, April 30, 7 pm

Pld - 3, W- 1, D - 1, L - 1, GF - 4, GA - 3

It boils down to this moment of truth for one of Indian football's hotbeds - a team from the north-east stands in the way of another becoming the first from the region to win significant silverware in the history of the sport.

Aizawl FC need just a point to ensure a finish ahead of four-times champions Mohun Bagan to wrest home their first I-League, and that should motivate Khalid Jamil's team in a match where they will miss their inspirational Liberian captain Alfred Jaryan in midfield and the no-nonsense defender Ashutosh Mehta, both through suspension.

They will face an in-form Shillong Lajong, who themselves are assured of bettering their previous best league finish of sixth even if they lose. Thirteen of Lajong's 25 points have come at home, and they have failed to score in just one of eight home games. Cameroonian striker Aser Dipanda continues to lead the scoring charts with his 10 goals, and Indian players such as Isaac Vanmalsawma, Samuel Lalmuanpuia and Redeem Tlang have been consistent with their contributions to midfield and attack.

They will have to deal with an Aizawl team that has beaten former champions Churchill Brothers and Mohun Bagan in their last two games. Aizawl also have three wins and two draws on the road, and have experience of playing on an artificial turf at home, similar to the one they will encounter in Shillong. In the absence of Jaryan, Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna will be expected to provide the necessary leadership on the field.

Expect a game of pace, passion, skills and high emotion, especially considering all that rides on the result; Aizawl will be I-League champions in every situation other than a Lajong win.

Mohun Bagan v Chennai City FC

Sunday, April 30, 7 pm

Pld - 1, W - 1, GF - 2, GA - 1

Their defeat to Aizawl last week means Mumbai take to the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium knowing they have to beat Chennai City FC to stand any chance of winning the title.

Their first meeting against the debutants in January was the first away match for Mohun Bagan, and also featured Chennai's first goal in I-League history in their fourth game. Unfortunately, Chennai couldn't get the job done despite taking the lead with a Marcos goal in the 52nd minute, as Jeje Lalpekhlua and Sony Norde scored to keep Bagan's then perfect record intact.

Chennai have shown maturity in recent games, especially under new coach V Soundararajan, a 6-1 defeat to Churchill Brothers last weekend snapping a sequence of five unbeaten games. Top scorer Charles and fellow-Brazilian Marcos have found adequate support from Indian players like Michael Soosairaj, Prasanth Karuthadathkuni and Dhanpal Ganesh, who has also been solid in his role as a central midfielder.

Chennai have little to play for, though, as they have no danger of relegation and have also secured a place in the Federation Cup by assuring themselves of a place in the top eight.

However, playing away to a team that has Darryl Duffy, Balwant Singh, Jeje, Norde and Katsumi Yusa forming the core of the attacking line will mean a busy evening for whoever is in goal. If Karanjit Singh starts, he will look to further his credentials for a recall to the Indian team, especially with the uncertainty over the future of Subrata Pal.

Bengaluru FC v Churchill Brothers

Saturday, April 29, 7 pm

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

Bengaluru FC scored 7 in a match for the first time in their four-year history last weekend against DSK Shivajians, and realise this match presents a chance to secure a place in the top four, and find more form ahead of the Federation Cup and the business end of the AFC Cup's group stages in May.

Churchill Brothers were struggling in the early stages of a league where they were included only at the eleventh hour, but they have had big results this season - their five wins include an away victory over East Bengal, and home wins over Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC.

Experienced striker Anthony Wolfe and Chesterpoul Lyngdoh got them the goals to cancel out a Sunil Chhetri penalty in their first meeting with Bengaluru in Vasco, a match that Albert Roca's team would be keen to avenge.

Mumbai FC v East Bengal

Saturday, April 29, 7 pm

Pld - 17, W - 6, D - 6, L - 5, GF - 20, GA - 24

It is perhaps an anomaly of the league's scheduling that Mumbai FC are finishing their season with their fourth successive home game, but their run of form in the lead-up has left them relegated as well as missing out on the Federation Cup for the first time in their history in the I-League.

Under new coach Oscar Bruzon, Mumbai are unbeaten in three games, but Shillong Lajong's late equaliser last weekend meant they stay winless in 15 games. They face East Bengal, who themselves brought a four-match losing streak to a stop with a 3-1 win over Minerva Punjab at home.

Mumbai's younger players, such as attacking midfielders Shilton D'Silva, Farrukh Choudhary, and former Bengaluru FC man Siam Hanghal will be eager to impress potential scouts for the following season.

East Bengal will also see this as a tune-up for the Federation Cup, where their eight titles make them the second-most successful team after Mohun Bagan, but one whose final they haven't made since their last triumph in 2012.

DSK Shivajians v Minerva Punjab

Sunday, April 30, 4:30 pm

Pld - 1, D - 1

DSK Shivajians will know they have underperformed for the kind of names they have within their roster -- Nirmal Chettri, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Hollicharan Narzary, Sanju Pradhan, Jerry Lalrinzuala and Milan Singh have all been part of the national team setup in recent years -- and will want to set the record straight after a 7-0 defeat to Bengaluru last weekend.

Minerva Punjab had successfully denied Shivajians any space to work with when they met on February 15 at the Guru Nanak Stadium, but will be hard-pressed to reproduce that performance at the Balewadi Stadium, where Shivajians have failed to score in just two of their eight matches thus far.

There is nothing at stake for both teams, though, and the only motivation would be to score a psychological point over the opposition should they come face-to-face in the Federation Cup in Cuttack next month.

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