I-League: Stronger than before, Mohd Sporting hope to go the extra mile as the new season gets underway

The new I-League season kicks off in the same old bubble.

For the second season running, the erstwhile top division of Indian football will be conducted in a bio-secure environment in Kolkata due to pandemic-related restrictions. In the last few years, the I-League has become truly pan-India, reaching places it never had before. The trend will continue this season, too, with a team from Rajasthan qualifying for the first time.

While the league’s newest club, Rajasthan United, will hope to do a Real Kashmir or an Aizawl FC and begin their journey with a bang, the focus will also be on one of the oldest sides of the country, Mohammedan Sporting, who will start as one of the favourites to win the 13-team league.

The I-League has thrown up riveting storylines and surprise winners in the last few seasons. But Sporting, the 130-year-old club, will be banking upon its good run of form in recent tournaments and a formidable squad under the tutelage of head coach Andrey Alekseyevich Chernyshov and win the title, which eluded them last year.

Sporting have had an ideal build-up to the I-League. Last month, Sporting bagged their 12th Calcutta Football League (CFL) title, after a long gap of 40 years. The Kolkata giants were also the finalists in the Durand Cup in September this year where they went down to FC Goa. In the Durand Cup, the Black Panthers defeated Gokulam Kerala in the quarterfinals and Bengaluru United in the semi-finals, before being beaten by FC Goa in the final, courtesy of an extra-time goal.

Chernyshov, who is a UEFA Pro License-holder, has vast experience of coaching, having been in seven countries, but this is his first stint in India. Shortly after retiring from the game, he was the manager of the Russia Under-21 team in August 2002. He also worked at numerous clubs, including stints at Spartak Moscow, Dinamo Tbilisi, Vitebsk, Dynamo Bryansk and Akzhayik.

Tag of being Favourites

With their new investors, Gurgaon-based Bunkerhill Pvt Ltd., providing some stability, Sporting have been able to put together a formidable squad.

Trinidadian striker Marcus Joseph is a vital cog in the team with goals in match-winning causes. He was also the top scorer in the Durand Cup.

The addition of attacking midfielder Andjelo Rudovic along with Serbian midfielder Nikola Stojanovic, Syrian defender Shaher Shahee gives MSC a wealth of experience. Local talent in form of SK Faiaz, Faisal Ali, Milan Singh, Sushil Meitei, Sanjib Ghosh makes the perfect blend of youth with experience, making it a fairly strong squad on paper.

Their attacking front will be crucial for their run in the I-League. Add to it the experienced managerial staff and all the team will need is a rhythm and if they do get going, they will remain the team to beat.

Chernyshov seemed pleased with the build-up to the I-League, which included a 6-2 win over Gokulam Kerala in a practice match. Nikola Stojanovic scored a brace while Milan Singh, Azharuddin, Sushil Meitei and Rudovic also found the back of the net.

“It was a good way to prepare but wasn’t easy because at times we had to play every other day. But our squad has a good depth and playing in the Durand Cup final and winning CFL was a good way to prepare,” Chernyshov said. “CFL was a strong tournament and so was Durand because teams from ISL are also playing in the tournament. But difficult to say how these tournaments compare with others.”

He added: “We are in good condition after playing the friendlies and satisfied with the preparations. We are waiting for the I League to begin since July. It’s going to be difficult, we know it’s going to be a tough battle.”

However, there was one blip in the recently concluded IFA Shield where the Black Panthers had to bow out after losing to Real Kashmir, one of the contenders for the I-League, even after being directly seeded into the quarter-finals.

Challenges of bubble-game

Managing the bubble game has been a challenge for Sporting and Chernyshov spoke his mind on the difficult challenges associated with it. “This is my first experience in a bubble and it is difficult. I can only speak to my players over the phone and am alone in my room all the time. This is really not easy,” said Chernyshov in a press conference on Wednesday.

“You have two ways to tackle this – one you wake up every day and crib – oh this is not good, how long will it last. The second is to keep telling yourself this is the rule and won’t last long. It’s our job and we must do it. All teams are in the same situation and not just us. So we accept it,” he added.

So how does a normal bubble day pan out for the coach? “I start my day with a cuppa of green tea, speak to my wife and then have a chat with the players about the plans in the coming days. I also discuss practice sessions for players inside their rooms,” the 53-year-old Russian said.

Fans promise to shower their love

Although the supporters of Sporting will not be able to attend the matches due to Covid-19 related restrictions, there is an air of optimism among them. “We want them to play an attacking brand of football and take the League by storm. Definitely, we are a bit sad that we won’t be able to watch the games but our passion will be never-ending and we will continue to show our love on social media,” said Debarshi Sengupta, a die-hard fan of Mohammedan Sporting.

Coach Chernyshov also had a word of praise for the fans. “They were amazing and their support is unbelievable. They came to support us for every game even when we were playing in Kalyani – which is a bit far from Kolkata. But they were all there and showed their love on social media as well, thus being our 12th player. I wish they could have been present in the I League matches but as I said before, rules are rules. Hopefully, we will give them joy by winning the cup,” he concluded.

Mohammedan Sporting squad:

Goalkeepers: Mithun Samanta, Kabir T, Susanta Naik, Zothanmawia

Defenders: Lalramchullova, Wayne Vaz, Arijeet Singh, Balwinder Singh, Lalramhmuanmawia, Saiful Rahaman, Shaher Shaheen (Foreign Player, Asian), Sujit Sadhu, Manoj Mohammad

Midfielders: Nikola Stojanovic (Foreign Player), Malsawmzuala, Firoj Ali, SK Faiaz, Faisal Ali, Milan Singh, Sushil Meitei, Sanjib Ghosh (U-22), Brandon Vanlalremdika, Ridge Demello (U-22)

Forwards: Marcus Joseph (Foreign Player), Stefan Ilic (Foreign Player), Seiminmang Manchong (U-22), Azharuddin, Jaskaranpreet Singh (U-22).

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