PLEASANTLY SURPRISING EVERYONE, Aizawl are comfortably placed in the third place in the I-League points table and there is no doubt about their determination of this team. Last year in the debut of the I-League, they won the hearts of many with their performance in the Federation Cup. This year under a new Coach, they have already caused some upsets as the team is gathering form and great results are following them as they sneak their way up their ladder.
With a breath of motivation as we reminisce how this team made their debut last year and their journey in the past two seasons. It is a story of never-giving-up, fighting till the end and being fearless. This year, is looks like a sequel in the making. Lets delve in.
At the start of the 2015-16 I-League season, Aizawl FC was set to make this the best memory in their history. And why wouldn't they? They had just entered India's top flight tier after winning the second division in convincing style. They dropped points only thrice in the entire season. Playing in the I-League for the first time was exciting, nervous and challenging, all at the same time.
The I-League is much more competitive with consisting of teams that have been in top most tier for a long time with bigger budgets, better infrastructure and more experienced squads. But Aizawl were undeterred by all that as they were coming in much bigger promise for the region they represent. Aizawl impressed everyone with their game for I-League debutants.
It was a roller-coaster season at both ends of the table. The title was a two horse race between Mohun Bagan and eventual champions Bengaluru FC and the relegation battle was split among 5 teams; Aizawl being one of them.
Aizawl finished 8th out of the 9 teams in the I-League and were the ones who were relegated despite DSK Shivajains being the last team in the points table. Being relegated even though not finishing last was not much of a concern as much as the controversy of the last rounds of fixtures was.
But Aizawl were not going to be bogged down by all the things not going their way and chose to focus on what they could do best. Next up was the Federation Cup of 2016. AFC's Coach then Jahar Das issued a warning and a message to all those who seemingly had being unjust toward the club's honest efforts. And what happened in the Federation Cup was history. They were put up against champions Bengaluru FC and they beat them hands down in 5-3 in aggregate. Next in queue were Sporting Club de Goa, who too could not withstand the steadfastness and determination of Aizawl FC. On the away goals rule, Aizawl FC got the better of the Goan team. All of a sudden the new team of the I-League, who just been relegated had knocked out then current champions (the first and only team to do so) and stormed in the finals of the Federation Cup. Although, Aizawl FC lost to Mohun Bagan in the finals of the Cup, they had already won hearts of the nation's fans. Their dream "comeback" run did not end perfectly but they had already achieved more than expectations.
This could be a sequel of the dream run
Aizawl FC's last season's performance got them a reward this year when they received a call up to be included in the I-League this season. When the announcement came, Aizawl were without a head coach and two of their foreign players had left the club. These were not looking signs like another dream run by Aizawl like they did the season before. The fixtures were out and AFC were slated against East Bengal away from home.
But like the slow but steady team Aizawl have shown, they took their first steps towards a fresh season by signing Khalid Jamil as their head coach. This was a great move as it triggered some singings that transformed the team and filled up void left by the outgoing players.
Khalid got in Jayesh Rane, Ashutosh Mehta as his first signings. Along with them, Aizawl picked up goalkeeper Albino Gomes, Syrian Midfielder Mahmoud Al Amenah from Sporting Club de Goa and Bayi, an Under 22 Ivorian Coast striker.
The first challenge was seen off with a draw against East Bengal. The next two home games were comfortably won against Minerva Punjab and Shillong Lajong. When Khalid and his team travelled to his long stayed home Mumbai FC, all eyes were on this fixture to see the result turns out knowing how difficult it was to beat Khaild's team at home. But now Khalid being on the opposition side along with experienced former Mumbai FC players Jayesh and Ashutosh, the tie just got interesting. Aizawl went on to win the game and Khalid expressed joy after the win.
Unbeatable at home
Being the less talking and more practical coach, Khalid's philosophy has been,
"Three points are ideal, but one point is good as well."
But this nowhere seen in the way Aizawl have approached their second I-league season. Aizawl FC have played six games and won 5 of them and drawing one. This is a kind of record that had teams being wary of Khalid back when they travelled to Mumbai FC. But there is a difference; this Aizawl team does not play for a draw. They burst into an attack at every chance they pick anywhere on the pitch. They can score from set pieces, counter attacks and even from open play. There is no predictability about their game.
What's the catch?
Between the team of last year and this year, the defence looks compact this year; they have conceded just 9 so far. The reason the wins are coming in for Aizawl with ease is that that they have been able to score goals, although few but have scored consistently. The wins may turn into draws when the goals are difficult to come by. Albino, who has been fabulous in goal, is to be credited along with the back line headed by Kingsley to stop leakages.
Aizawl FC might be walking on a tight rope as they keep an excellent balance between consistent scoring and compact defence line. Either one of the two are shaken, the castle of dreams that is more than half-complete now, will start to crumble slowly.
The team from Mizoram will still be very much in the title race if they can hold on this consistency they have shown in this "comeback" dream run.
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