THE TITLE RACE in I-League 2020-21 is a thriller unfolding with the top nine clubs separated by just six points.
The competition, taking place in a new shortened format due to COVID-19, has seen several clubs emerge as prime contenders in the wake of heavyweights Mohun Bagan and East Bengal joining the ISL.
Churchill Brothers are still leading the pack with 13 points from 7 matches. But they got held to draws in their last three matches, which has dramatically closed the gap at the top of the table that Valera's team had built up early in the campaign.
But they're one misstep away from losing the frontrunner status. Second on the table are Punjab FC, who have recovered well from their back to back losses that caused many to write them off. They built back up and now they're the only club in this extremely competitive league with a two match win streak. Their win over Aizawl FC in a thriller 4-3 encounter was the turning point, and they kept up the momentum today beating Indian Arrows. Now they're on 11 points from 7 matches, breathing down Churchill's neck.
And just one point behind Punjab are three dark horses of the season. TRAU, who just beat a resurgent Aizawl FC, have 10 points from 7 matches. Alongside them are Real Kashmir and Mohammedan Sporting, two popular clubs with momentum in the season with prior silverware (Mohammedan won the 2nd Division League, Real Kashmir won IFA Shield) that are on 10 points but have played just 6 matches. So either club, with a win in their next match, can catch Churchill Brothers at the top.
At 9 points from 6 games are Chennai City, who got a setback with two losses in a row but have won two of their last three games and now, with a win in their next game, can leave Punjab FC (currently second) behind in terms of points-per-game.
Then there are Sudeva Delhi FC and Aizawl FC, both on 8 points from six matches, closely tailed by a struggling Gokulam Kerala FC at the 9th place with 7 points from 6 matches. NEROCA, who find themselves at 10th position after their loss to Chennai City, are on 5 points from 6 games.
The craziness of this competition can be summed up by this sentence: 9th placed Gokulam Kerala FC are potentially just one win away from being in the top three.
The COVID-19 induced shortened format of I-League will have just one leg of round robin before splitting the table with the top six playing in the title race and the bottom five playing to avoid relegation. Although the points get carried over, given how things are turning out there's unlikely to be much of an advantage to any team going into the next stage. And given how close teams are to each other in the points table, most of the top six and bottom five can get turned upside down if the next two or three rounds.
The competition is well into the second half of the first stage and other than Indian Arrows everyone else is in the title race, and even the teams at the top need to maintain form to avoid ending up in the relegation race.
Although I-League has lost much of its glamour and two of its most popular clubs, it does seem like it has retained all of the fierce competition that has come to define it over the last decade.
In fact, even though the I-League may be phased out over the next few years, it may be having its most exciting season yet.