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I-League to kick off on November 25

Story: CHARLES | D'SOUZA | 15th November 2017, 03:09 Hrs

The Hero I-League 2017-2018 fixtures are officially out. This is the 11th season of the I-League, which kicks off on November 25 with Minerva Punjab FC taking on former champions Mohun Bagan at Guru Nanak Stadium, Punjab in the opener.
In terms of excitement and flair, the first National Football League (NFL) sponsored by Philips was like a breath of fresh air. JCT Mills with the likes of Baichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Anchery, Carlton Chapman and Nigerian Stephen Abarowei in tow, pipped chokers Churchill Brothers Sports Club to the post in a thrilling finish to take the inaugural title.
The NFL then evolved into a Bengal vs Goa battle for honours. But in 2007, in an effort to professionalise the game the league was renamed as I-League. Some of the leading clubs likes Dempo Sports Club, Salgaocar, JCT, Mahindra United, Sporting Clube de Goa, Pune FC, Bharat FC, DSK Shivajans are no longer in the fold, while the ambitious Bengalaru FC opted out this season to join the competition in the lucrative Indian Super League (ISL).
I-League has been a largely neglected entity of the AIFF after the birth of the unique product called ISL that captivated the fans throughout the country in its inaugural year (2014) itself. The huge pay cheques to the players and presence of overseas stars, most of them past their best years, made the first season of ISL a big success with good crowds attending the matches.
Meanwhile in the I-League this season, three new teams have been introduced -- Neroca FC, Indian Arrows and Gokulam Kerala FC. The 10 teams participating in the league are: East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Neroca FC, Churchill Brothers Sports Club, Shillong Lajong FC, Gokulam Kerala FC, Chennai City FC, Aizawal FC, Indian Arrows and Mierva FC. The usual suspects - Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, and surprise winners of last season, Aizawl FC, will again be the top contenders while Neroca FC and Shillong Lajong FC also have strong line-ups.
East Bengal are the title favourites as they possess the best all-round team on paper, radiating solidity in all departments of the game while also boasting quality foreign recruits. The red and gold brigade has been engaging in a series of pre-season friendlies against top ISL outfits. East Bengal have shown promise by beating two ISL franchises, FC Goa and Jamshedpur FC, in their friendlies.
Former champions Mohun Bagan -- always tough customers to beat at home and away -- have relatively solid combo of local and foreign talents. The Mariners lost their two pre-season matches but their head coach Sanjay Sen, who has come back after surgery, sounded confident of his team's chances.
"I have always said that I-League is what matters the most. The I-League is an entirely different ball game. I know my team will come good," Sen said.
The lesser mortals -- Chennai City FC, Gokulam Kerala FC and Minerva Punjab FC -- will be fighting for the bottom spoils and also to stay clear of the danger zone. Meanwhile, Churchill Brothers, who showed mixed form last season, will look to keep the Goan flag flying high. The Red Machines are the only Goan representatives in the league after the boycott of the league by the State's big three - Dempo, Salgaocar and Sporting Club de Goa.