I-LEAGUE SPECIAL | BY SWAPNANEEL PARASAR Follow @Swapyo on twitter
Ahead of the new I-League season, Goal analyses the teams in India's top-flight and in this piece, we focus on Minerva Punjab FC.
MINERVA PUNJAB FC
Last season's performance: (Debut appearance; Promoted) - Minerva Football Academy, as they were known earlier, finished the 2015-16 2nd Division I-League as the runners-up. The Ludhiana-based club topped their initial Western Conference four points clear of eventual champions Dempo SC where they shipped in 16 goals and only conceded three in eight games.
However, 2 losses and 3 draws in the final round meant that the ambitious club fell five points behind Dempo and missed out on outright promotion to the I-League. But, fate had a surprise in store for them when the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) decided to promote Minerva after the pullout of the Goan clubs including Dempo.
Minerva thus became the first club from the Indian state of Punjab to feature in the I-League after JCT FC which was disbanded after the 2010-11 season.
|THE COACH - SURINDER SINGH|
The former Pailan Arrows assistant coach took charge of Minerva in 2015 and led the Warriors to the final round and then a runners-up position in the 2nd division of the I-League last season.
Singh has been a stalwart in age-group coaching and has been associated with the AIFF and its various junior teams in the past. Having worked under Colm Toal in the national set-up (now the technical director of Minerva), Singh has also helped in the development of India's only export to the UEFA Europa League - goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
However, it will be intriguing to see Singh's approach in his debut season in charge of a team in the apex league of the nation. Past performances suggest that he prefers a 'safety first' approach. But the I-League is a totally different ball game from the humble 2nd division.
Only a handful of senior players remain at the club from last year. Top-scorer Kareem Omolaja from Nigeria was supposed to be retained but has mysteriously been omitted from the squad while former India international Clifford Miranda has returned to his native Goa to turn out for Churchill Brothers.
Loveday Eyinnaya, who was an integral part of Sporting Goa's defence last year, will be expected to shoulder the same burden for Minerva. Aizawl FC's top scorer from last season, Joel Yinka Sunday, has been roped in to bolster the attacking arsenal.
Top scorer of Nepal's African United Club, Victor Amobi, has also been lured to Ludhiana. Former Kerala Blasters duo Ramandeep Singh and Manandeep Singh have signed for the club and the latter takes over the captain's armband.
AIFF Elite Academy's Anirudh Thapa, Bedashwor Singh, Prosenjit Chakraborty and Baoringdao Bodo, all of whom had a short stint at French club FC Metz's academy, have been loaned in from ISL side Chennaiyin FC along with Sikkimese striker Uttam Rai.
Vinit Rai from Kerala Blasters and Rakesh Oram from Mumbai City FC are the other notable members of the squad who have had experience at the highest level.
Former Mohun Bagan centre-back Deepak Devrani and Sporting Goa's Jovel Martins have also been drafted in.
Guam international Marcus Lopez was expected to fill in the Asian player slot but has bewilderingly gone missing from the squad submitted to the AIFF.
It is evident that coach Surinder Singh would not know his best eleven from the word go. The Warriors would need time to adapt to the I-League and that could see them slipping early on.
Nevertheless, the Punjab side have a surprise element about them. A young team with a few senior heads in the foreign signings could make up for an interesting display of football.
Surinder Singh has been dealing with youngsters from the very onset of his career and will know how to bring out the best from the teenagers in his squad.
Ravi Kumar, Arshdeep Singh and Kamaljit Singh will be the custodians fighting for the starting spot. Vishal Ravindrakumar and Ramandeep Singh should be the go-to full backs and Deepak Devrani - Loveday Eyinnaya partnership in central defence should bloom.
Assam-born Vinit Rai, Rakesh Oram and Anirudh Thapa look good to take on duties in midfield but Germanpreet Singh, Lalrempuia Fanai and Bedashwor Singh would be knocking he doors if places open up.
The Nigerian duo of Victor Amobi and Joel Sunday will have to take up the mantle of scoring and creating and given the latter's physical prowess and track record in Indian conditions, expect him to cause a few headaches for the opponents.
Manandeep Singh should prove to be a good alternative option in attack while the likes of Uttam Rai, Souvick Das and Prosenjit Chakraborty would be able back-ups for the first team.
MAN TO WATCH - JOEL SUNDAY
Joel Sunday was brought in to steady Aizawl FC's sinking ship midway through last season's I-League and he delivered exactly what was expected of him. Four goals in nine I-League appearances and a couple more in the Federation Cup made him the Aizawl hitman.
Even though Aizawl could not avoid relegation, they carved a niche for themselves in the cup competition by reaching the final. His partnership with Alfred Jaryan was one to reckon and something similar should be in store as he teams up with Victor Amobi at Minerva.
Minerva's sole motive this season would be to avoid the wooden spoon, given their inexperienced squad. Anything above that would be simply a bonus for the team which is doing North India a favour by bringing back top-level football after seven long years.