Aizawl FC finished second from bottom and were to be relegated from the division, only to stay on due to a shortage of teams.
Bengaluru: Bengaluru FC look to start the countdown to the end of the season in positive fashion when they play host to I-League leaders Aizawl FC, who have enthralled fans and pundits alike with their dynamism, at the Sree Kanteerava stadium here on Sunday.
The context of this fixture seemed unthinkable towards the end of last season. Aizawl FC finished second from bottom and were to be relegated from the division, only to stay on due to a shortage of teams.
Fast forward to the business end of the current season and Albert Roca’s defending champions, mired in mid-table mediocrity, take on Khalid Jamil’s champions-elect.
The rise has been nothing short of astronomical, with many likening the north-easterners to the fabled Leicester City in their tilt towards a first-ever league title.
With the two-time league winners Bengaluru throwing in the towel in their title defence this season with a 3-0 loss to Mohun Bagan in their last fixture, coach Roca argued that are still implications to how the remainder of the league season goes.
“All the games that we play from now to May 30 will be important to the team. We know that we don’t have the possibility to win the title again, but we have important goals ahead and doing well in the I-League is the only way to see that these can be achieved,” he said on Saturday.
The Garden City club has turned their attention to runs in the Federation and AFC Cups and the Spaniard reminded his players of their responsibilities. “All the games until the end of the I-league season will prepare us for the Federation and AFC Cups. We have a debt with our supporters.”
The score stood at 1-1 the last time these two sides met in the reverse fixture and Roca believed the Blues fell short in the final third, against a side that has conceded only 11 times.
Blues miss Anto, Jhingan
Roca will be without first choice right-backs Rino Anto and Sandesh Jhingan, while versatile midfielder Harmanjot Khabra faces a one-match suspension after his fourth booking against Mohun Bagan.
Mathematically, one of the top four teams can lift the division trophy and while contenders East Bengal and Mohun Bagan also do battle in the Kolkata derby on Sunday, ex-Mumbai FC coach Jamil didn’t vex over table positions or even a prospective title.
“We’re not thinking about the league title, East Bengal or Mohun Bagan. We are solely focused on tomorrow’s fixture. I told my players at the start of the season to take it game by game. We will continue to do so.”
Perhaps it is this sort of talk that has seen Jamil’s team escape the perils of tunnel vision and lose just twice in the league season, go unbeaten in their last seven games, and find a tenacity to score late goals. He couldn’t care less how many horses are in the running, as he remains focused on keeping their destiny in their own hands.