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Monday, July 16, 2018

Indian Football Wrap: David James’ honeymoon period, boy wonder Lallianzuala Chhangte and Khalid Jamil’s return

The Indian Super League (ISL), of course, is still a tiny speck on the world football map, so direct, often exagerrated comparisons to EPL are unfair.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | New Delhi | Updated: January 31, 2018 7:03:25 am
In the three matches under returning manager David James, Kerala secured a draw against Pune and got two valuable away wins in Delhi and Mumbai (1-0). (Source: ISL)

A decade ago, Sue Bridgewater, a football researcher and university professor who works for the Premier League Manager Association, came up with a short paper on the sackings in EPL from 1992 to 2008, in which she concluded that every time a club parted ways with its manager, a ‘short honeymoon period’ followed.

The Indian Super League (ISL), of course, is still a tiny speck on the world football map, so direct, often exagerrated comparisons to EPL are unfair. But Bridgewater’s observations hold true even for the league that is still at a nascent stage, as David James and Kerala Blasters have shown.

Under former Manchester United first team coach Rene Meulensteen, Kerala looked a side that couldn’t win. Yet, the Sachin Tendulkar co-owned side’s decision to sack the Dutch coach made little sense, especially since there were just two months and nine more matches remaining in the league. It’s tough for a coach to deliver in such a short span – Meulensteen’s stay, too, lasted two months and seven matches – and it’s even more unfair on his successor to turn things around mid-way, with so little time remaining.

Somehow, though, Kerala have transformed under their former player-manager James. They stole a point against Pune City at home and got two valuable wins on the road in Delhi (3-1) and Mumbai (1-0). In his seven matches, Meulensteen could manage just one win.

But the turnaround can’t be attributed to James’ tactical genius, if any. He has more or less carried on from where Meulensteen left, choosing the same set of players and playing a similar style. Tellingly, though, the players’ morale looks up.

Striker Iain Hume once again looks the part, scoring a hat-trick in Delhi and the winner in Mumbai. Rino Anto looked sharp against Delhi and Sandesh Jhingan has been reliable as ever along with an improved Wes Brown. There are concerns over Dimitar Berbatov’s form and fitness after he injured himself against Delhi.

Why this team looked so listless under Meulensteen is something that even James isn’t able to figure out. “It is difficult for me to understand how this side could not perform the same way earlier too,” he said after the win against Delhi.

For how long the honeymoon lasts remains to be seen but it has spiced up the fight for a place in the semifinals. With 14 points from 10 matches, Kerala are now just two points outside the top-four bracket and have a chance to get three more points when they take on Jamshedpur tonight.

Chhangte turns heads
The change in coach has turned around Kerala’s fortune but another coach who had his job on the line was Delhi Dynamos’ Miguel Portugal. Many expected him to be on the chopping block but Delhi resisted the urge to follow Kerala and NorthEast United’s footsteps and gave Portugal a relatively longer rope.

Portugal comes across as a coach who swears by his style even if the results do not follow. He despices teams like Kerala who indulge in playing long, aerial balls. “There’s just one team that played football,” he said after the 3-1 defeat to Kerala. “The other team scored three goals.”

You can argue that logic, especially since Delhi are placed at the bottom despite playing attractive football. But for all their profligacy in front of goal, they have been among the better sides in their last three matches. Away at table-toppers Chennai, they managed a 2-2 draw while at home to Kerala they were easily the better team despite the defeat.

Not many expected them to put up a fight against Bengaluru but everything fell in place for Portugal, and Delhi thoroughly outplayed the title contenders for a comfortable 2-0 win.

Delhi’s 20-year-old Mizo striker Lallianzuala Chhangte is turning some heads with his pace and opportunistic play. A little fine tuning and he could well be the latest star from the Mizo football factory.

Jamil’s return to Aizawl
Talking about Mizo football, on Tuesday Khalid Jamil returned to Aizawl but it was anything but a warm ‘homecoming’. Jamil guided Aizawl to a fairytale I-League title win last season but was lured away by East Bengal’s financial might.

His decision left several Aizawl players and fans upset, and the anger boiled over when Jamil took several key players with him, including Syrian midfielder Mahmoud al Amna. So Jamil was booed by the same fans who promised to erect his statue in the city centre last year.

On the field, Jamil’s former players looked determined to justify their champions tag and also dent East Bengal’s hopes of snatching the I-League crown from Aizawl. It was a fiesty encounter that ended eventually goalless, which Jamil wouldn’t mind since it keeps his side in second place and firmly in contention for the title.

For that, however, East Bengal will have to deal with the Minerva juggernaut. Like Aizawl last year, Minerva are scripting a fairytale of their own. Their unrelenting run, fuelled by Bhutanese striker Chencho Gyeltshen, has propelled them to the top of the table with 22 points. They are the unexpected leaders at the half-way stage. Whether they can pull off an Aizawl, though, remains to be seen.

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