All eyes would be on Brazilian star Marcelinho Leite Pereira when a spirited Rajasthan United FC make their I-League debut against RoundGlass Punjab FC in the opening day’s fixture at the Kalyani Stadium here on Sunday.
The 34-year-old, who had taken the Indian Super League by storm winning the Golden Boot in his maiden season in 2016, is one of the biggest attractions this I-League season.
Having started off with the Delhi Dynamos, the attacking midfielder enjoyed spells at FC Pune City, Hyderabad FC, Odisha FC and ATK Mohun Bagan, making 79 appearances and scoring 33 goals.
The forward scored 10 goals en route to winning the Golden Boot in his maiden season and with 18 assists, he is also at third place currently in the all-time ISL charts.
Now he will look to raise the bar for RUFC who is the first team from Rajasthan to qualify for the I-League.
15th edition of the Hero I-League to kick off on Boxing Day
— Hero I-League (@ILeagueOfficial) December 7, 2021
“It’s a new team, and I want to set an example for the young players. At the same time, I want to enjoy my football with the team, and let all enjoy it too,” the Brazilian said.
About his target, he said: “To be at the top.”
“The target is always to be champions. Nothing else matters.”
They also have the likes of I-League winner Komron Turunov, Diego Bielkiewicz, Akeem Abioye and Fabiano Alves in their foreigners’ lineup.
The Ashley Westwood-coached Punjab FC, on the other hand, have the likes of English defender Josef Yarney, Spanish midfielder Joseba Beitia, English striker Kurtis Guthrie and Australian forward Travis Major.
Local players Gurtej Singh, Rinto Anto and Bikash Yumnam will form the core of their defence, while the midfield will be helmed by the likes of CK Vineeth, Kean Lewis and Ashish Pradhan.
In attack, the club will bank on Sumeet Passi and Robin Singh to score goals.
Hailing RUFC’s success, Westwood acknowledged that they’re geared up for a tough fight.
“They have trained well and maybe better prepared considering the fact that they have played competitive matches longer. They will have the advantage,” Westwood said in a virtual interaction on the eve of their match.
“We are expecting a tough game. We need to perform well otherwise we will coming back with no points,” he added.
Former JCT defender Gurtej Singh is looking forward to his return to his homeland.
“I’ve played for JCT before. After a long time, I’m getting a chance to play for Punjab again. It’s really a proud moment for me,” Gurtej said.
The opening day’s fixtures will also see holders Gokulam Kerala go up against former champions Churchill Brothers in another match at the Kalyani Stadium.
The Malabarians edged out the Red Machines by the narrowest of margins last season to clinch their first ever I-League title.
Aiming to bring the trophy home once again, the Goan side have assembled a quality squad under head coach Petre Gigiu, who had led them to a fourth-place finish in 2018-19.
Gokulam Kerala, coached by Italian Vincenzo Alberto Annese, will miss the Ghanaian trio of Denny Antwi, Philip Adjah and Mohamed Awal who have left the club.
In their places, they have roped in defender Aminou Bouba and forward Rahim Osumanu.
“We have a lot of youngsters who will make their I-League debuts. It’s also great to have players continuing from last season as well, like Alex Saji who is now a part of the national camp,” their Italian coach said.
“Churchill are our big rivals from last season but I don’t focus too much on our opponents. I only study them tactically. If we concentrate on our team, we can beat them all,” he asserted.
The All India Football Federation’s developmental outfit Indian Arrows who are based out of Bhubaneswar will take on TRAU FC at the Mohun Bagan ground here.
Local heavyweights Mohammedan SC, under new head coach Andrey Chernyshov, will also be keen to win their first I-League title with a host of quality signings, including 26-year-old Serbian Nikola Stojanovic, who was inspirational in their CFL win earlier this year, something that came after 40 years.
They will also have the likes of experienced pro Marcus Joseph from Trinidad and Tobago and Brandon Vanlalremdika, Montenegrin midfielder Andjelo Rudovic and six-foot-five Bosnian forward Ismar Tandir.
Real Kashmir, with star players like Fran Gonzalez and Mason Robertson, will be riding high on their second successive IFA Shield victory that came earlier this month.
With the inclusion of three new sides — Sreenidi Deccan FC of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan United FC and Kenkre FC of Kolhapur — the forthcoming edition will feature 13 teams from 11 cities.
The I-League champion side will play in the top-tier Indian Super League from 2023 onwards on “sporting” merit.
Two years after this, there will be promotion (from I-League to ISL) and relegation (from ISL and I-League) between the two leagues.
Just like last year, the I-League will be held in a bio-secure environment with strict COVID-19 protocols.
The matches will be played across three venues — Mohun Bagan Ground in Kolkata, Kalyani Stadium and Naihati Stadium.