Aizawl: Two former champions, Aizawl Football Club and Mohun Bagan will square off in the opening match of the 13th edition of the I-League, which has been reduced to a second tier domestic competition this season.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) and some of the clubs were locked in a bitter face-off on which out of Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League will the top-tier competition in the country.
After a lot of acrimony, the issue was finally settled with the help of the Asian Football Confederation, with the ISL being made the top-tier league with a slot in the AFC Champions League play-off, while I-League champions would compete in the second tier AFC Cup.
As a concession to the clubs, starting with the 2022-23 season, the winner of I-League will stand a chance to be promoted to ISL. From the 2024-25 season onwards, performance-based promotion and relegation to and from ISL will be implemented.
A total of 110 games are scheduled to be played in over five-month long league in home-and-away basis among the 11 participating clubs. The AIFF has said that all the 110 matches will be telecast live on DSPORT.
Aizawl FC, champions of the 10th edition, will see their Kolkata visitors playing under a new coach and a new-look squad from the one which finished fifth last time around.
The green and maroons have roped in Spaniard Kibu Vicuna this season along with a fleet of his countrymen. The side under Vicuna has been together for about five months now and has played at least three competitive tournaments going into Saturday’s opener.
Speaking at the pre-match press conference, Vicuna said, “We are working together for almost five months and we are 100 per cent ready to play the first game. We respect Aizawl because they are a good team. It is going to be a tough match but we want to start well in the competition and go back to Kolkata with three points.” The home side, on the other hand, had finished a disappointing seventh in the previous edition. They have appointed a new coach towards the end of last season and will be continuing with Stanley Rosario at the helm of affairs.
The Aizawl gaffer was wary of their fancied opponents. “This match against Mohun Bagan means a lot to my young Mizoram players and it is going to be a tough task at hand,” he said.
“Mohun Bagan have full strength with six foreign players and we have only two foreigners with a lot of young players promoted from our academy. It is going to be a big challenge to play against strong Mohun Bagan.”
On the importance of starting with a win, he said, “I want my players to believe in themselves and go with a positive mindset and try to get something out of it because everything is possible in football. A good and positive start will give us confidence going ahead.”
As far as teams go, Aizawl have managed to retain the nucleus of the side which played in the 12th edition and have also made some new and potentially young exciting signings.
The likes of Liberian defensive wall Alfred Jaryan and his partner Richard Kasagga of Uganda are still around and so are midfielders like David, Isac, Lalremsanga, Rocharzela and they even have William Lalnunfella back after a brief flirtation with Bagan.
Ayush Dev Chetri and Techi Tatra are two young forwards who would be looking to make a mark.
For Mohun Bagan, they have a familiar Debjit back in goal, while Kim Kima and Arijit Bagui are a couple of familiar names which are likely to be seen in their defence line again.
However, they also have new foreign faces at the back in Trinidadian Daniel Cyrus and Spaniard Francisco Munoz. Fran Morante and Joseba Beitia are another couple of Spanish footballers who will be seen leading the Mohun Bagan attacks this season.
Aizawl lost their home game against Bagan last season while drawing their away game.