Ludhiana: Last season’s runners-up Mohun Bagan will aim for nothing less than a win when they take on Minerva Punjab in the opening match of the Hero I-League, at the Guru Nanak Dev Stadium, in Ludhiana on Saturday.
The Kolkata giants won the league back in 2014, but finished as runners-up in the next two seasons, despite coming agonizingly close. It was just one point last season, that separated the first and second places and Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen who is optimistic of turning things around this season, mentioned ‘win’ and ‘champions’ as two of the most important priority for the Mariners.
“Mohun Bagan always plays to win. There is no runners-up mentality in our team or management. Our only goal is to be the Champions of India,” he said. He also added, “We have new sides like Neroca FC and Gokulam Kerala FC who have come in. Almost every team has a new setup with new players in place. So it is going to be a new challenge for all of us. And no team can be certain of success. But as I mentioned we will play to win the league.”
Minerva Punjab however have a contrasting history to their opposition on Saturday. Mainly an academy club, it has been a historic rise for the ‘Lions’ of Punjab. It was from this academy that the likes of Jeakson Singh, Anwar Ali and Nongdamba Naorem graduated out and north India’s only representative in the I-League promises to swirl the title around with a young team.
“There have been many changes since last year for Minerva Punjab. We have selectively picked up a pretty young side. Most of our players are in their early 20s which suggest we believe in our youth system,” said Minerva head coach Wankhem Khogen Singh.
Although cricket and hockey are the most followed sports in the state of Punjab, the interest in football has also witnessed a rise along with the state’s very own team – Minerva Punjab and captain Sukhdev Singh spoke just this when talking about the generic growth of football in Punjab.
“There are many pockets all over India in which football is extremely popular e.g. The Northeast region, Kerala, Goa, West Bengal. Punjab was a big powerhouse in the 20th Century. If you look at last 4 years the football in Punjab is back on track. People are getting familiar with the game, children are taking a big interest in football in some areas such as Malpur which comes in rural areas of Punjab,” he said.
The Mariners have also gone for a youth team this season, with most of it’s players lured away to the much more attractive Indian Super League. However they have one of the biggest stars of Indian football- Sony Norde and the coach wants his boys to learn from the mercurial Haitian.
“The senior players will surely guide the youngsters. Sony Norde is our captain. And the younger boys look up to him for guidance. My job as a coach is to boost their confidence and look after them so that they can reach their full potential,” said the I-League winning coach ahead of the match.
Bagan other than Norde also has last season’s top goal scorer Dipanada Dicka and Ansumana Kromah who impressed in the CFL and the Sen also added, “The team is almost new. Last year we were able to beat Minerva Punjab and this season also we expect the same outcome. We came very late in Ludhiana yesterday, we reached very late due to flight problem. As we are playing an away match so it would have been better that we had an extra session of practice but now we need to deal with what we have in hand.”
The pre-season of both the teams just like their history, is different. While Minerva capped off a good preparation playing in the Punjab League, where they performed exceedingly well missing the title by a whisker and also beat Bengaluru FC 3-2, Bagan failed to beat a single ISL side in the off season matches, that culminated with a 4-1 defeat to Pune City. Bagan gaffer Sanjoy Sen however played down the results and asked his team to focus on the match at hand.
“The pre-season is all about the preparation for the season and not much about the results. If you look at our match against FC Pune City which we lost by 4-1 the result could have been a lot different as we created much more chances than the opposition. So I feel content with that performance and expect a great game tomorrow,” he concluded.