The second Division of the I-League is set to kick-off tomorrow Thursday, March 31 with matches in Group A and C, while Group B would kick-off on Saturday, April 2. 21 teams will be seen in action in the preliminary stage with two teams from each group making it to the final round where Sporting Clube de Goa and Shillong Lajong FC will be waiting to find the two sides who will get promoted to the I-League proper.
It has been difficult over the last few days to gather information on all participating sides, but still lets have a look at the three groups and the seven teams set to face each other.
Group A - Guwahati (Assam)
NISA (Manipur), United Sikkim FC (Sikkim), Langsning FC (Meghalaya), Guwahati Town Club (Assam), Southern Samity (West Bengal), Golden Threads FC (Kerala), Simla Youngs FC (Delhi)
Group A matches will be played at the Nehru Stadium and SAI ground in the Assamese capital Guwahati which looks even though Kolkata's Southern Samity and Baichung Bhutia's side United Sikkim FC being my favourites to go through with teams like Simla Youngs, Golden Threads and Guwahati Town Club potential threats but Langsning and NISA are there just to make up numbers.
I recently saw the Kolkata side in action. Southern Samity have seasoned foreigners in Edmilson, Majek Bolaji and Michael Tayo besides other players like Chandan Das, P.T. Somy, Gurpreet Singh, Amit Singha Roy who all have I-League experience besides talented youngsters like Francis Xavier. They look a settled sides under Brazilian coach Carlos Pereira da Silva and have shown in the Calcutta Premier League as well as the ongoing IFA Shield that they are a team with potential.
I have been following United Sikkim's training for weeks and see the team slowly settle down after the new professional USFC was started in early-February. Baichung has used his links to bring in seasoned players like Manju, M. Suresh, Kalia Kulothungan and Bijen Singh besides making his friend Renedy Singh the captain, but he will miss the qualifiers due to an injury. The team also has good foreigners in Mituski Ichihara and John D. Menyongar with Baichung even maybe playing if he has regained a basic level of fitness.
The other five teams are difficult to judge with little infos available on them. Guwahati Town Club could use the home advantage to their favour, while Simla Youngs FC where a late entrant into the league due to a late clearance.
Group B - Jamshedpur (Jharkhand)
Mohammedan Sporting Club (West Bengal), Denzong Boyz (Sikkim), Josco FC (Kerala), Kenkre FC (Maharashtra), Sesa Football Academy (Goa), Malabar United FC (Kerala), Ar-Hima FC (Meghalaya)
There was a late venue change from the state capital Ranchi to the industrial city of Jamshedpur with the JRD Tata Sports complex now hosting the Group B qualifiers. On paper this is the strongest of all groups with Mohammedan Sporting, Sesa Football Academy and Malabar United all having played in last years 2nd Division. Mohammedan Sporting are my top favourites after I have seen them play under their new coach Tope Fuja, who has won three trophies with the team and installed confidence in the boys. Besides Sesa Football Academy and Malabar United, Mumbai's Kenkre FC could be a top two candidate but the lack of experience at this level might be a problem with Josco FC rather unknown and the Northeastern sides of Ar-Hima FC and Denzong Boyz unlikely to play a role in this group.
Group C - Madurai (Tamil Nadu)
Techno Aryan Club (West Bengal), Vasco SC (Goa), Chandni FC (Kerala), Royal Wahingdoh SC (Meghalaya), Eagles FC (Kerala), PIFA Colaba FC (Maharashtra), BEML (EM) (Karnataka)
Group C could be the most unpredictable if Aryan Club and Vasco SC aren't able to stamp their authority on the Group C which will be played in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Vasco will try to get back into the I-league while Aryan's are a club with big history, but it is their first attempt in the second Division. Vasco have been having problems for the last few years, but the people's club from the port town in Goa remain a team with a lot of potential, but their best years seem behind them.
After the convincing campaign in the Calcutta Premier League in which they remained unbeaten and defeated all the cities top sides they have developed as a squad under seasoned coach Raghu Nandy. It is mainly a young team with good foreigners and some players who have played for the big Kolkata sides.