The 2016 season of the I-League has reached its mid-way stage, with all the teams having played half of their games so far. Defending champions Mohun Bagan remain at the top of the table, with 18 points from their eight games, while rivals East Bengal and Bengaluru FC lie close behind with 17 and 15 points, respectively.
Mohun Bagan, despite struggling in their last two games, have been defensively strong enough to keep rivals at bay. Youngster Pronay Halder has been a vital cog in the Mohun Bagan machine this term, acting as the perfect shield to the backline from his midfield position.
With half of the season to go, the Green-and-Maroons remain in pole position to retain the title they won last season. However, with AFC Cup commitments coming up, it remains to be seen how the club manages the tight scheduling in the remaining months.
Can East Bengal win the title?
It was 12 seasons back when East Bengal had last won the national league, buoyed by a stellar season from Brazilian forward Cristiano Junior, who sadly met his death a few months later on the football field while leading Dempo to the Federation Cup title.
Since then, East Bengal have come close on a few occasions, most recently in the 2013-14 season, but have failed to get past the finishing line. With fierce rivals Mohun Bagan winning the title last season, there is a renewed sense of desperation for the I-League title in the other half of Kolkata.
Barring a defeat to Bengaluru, the Red-and-Golds have performed commendably in the league, and there's no reason why they cannot go all the way from here. The biggest advantage East Bengal have in this title race is that they have the lightest schedule among the three main contenders.
The manner in which Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC approach the AFC Cup will be vital in how the I-League title race turns out this season.
It is important to note that if Bagan and Bengaluru do progress beyond the Round of 16 stages, they will be without their on-loan players, who would join their ISL franchises by that time.
Last season, Ashley Westwood's shrewd man-management skills saw Bengaluru stay in contention for the title till the last minute of the season, despite a much-tighter schedule than eventual champions Bagan.
The JSW-backed club has a very strong squad, but the team has been far from consistent this season. With this being a very short I-League season, any slip-up in the second half of the season could prove to be costly. Which is why, it would be prudent for Bengaluru to focus on the I-League, and play a second-string side in the AFC Cup.
Mohun Bagan could follow a similar strategy as well. With East Bengal breathing down their necks and enjoying a less-compact schedule, even one bad result could lend a major blow on their title hopes.
That being said, there is a major mental barrier that East Bengal players will have to get past to win the league. As the season progresses, there will be more unsettled nerves among them. The club's failings in previous seasons will be fresh in the players' and fans' memories, and it will be interesting to see whether East Bengal can go that extra mile and win the title.
The relegation battle
With DSK enjoying immunity from relegation, the other five clubs could all be involved in the battle for survival this season. Sporting Goa have one of the best and most balanced squads in the league, but they have underperformed so far.
On the other hand, Salgaocar's hastily assembly squad, which includes some of the country's best talents, has struggled to gel well together. Despite Santosh Kashyap's arrival in the middle of the campaign, the club seems to have genuine problems, and like last season, may be involved in another arduous campaign to try and avoid the drop.
Mumbai FC's squad is stronger than last-season, and looks like a mid-table team on paper. However, in a short season like this, a couple of injuries could be enough to derail any team's campaign. That being said, one can always bet on a Khalid Jamil-coached side, given his experience with Mumbai so far, to avoid relegation from the top-flight.
Shillong Lajong and Aizawl are two other sides who could be involved in a late-season relegation fight. Lajong has one of the youngest squads in the league, and their inconsistency is not really surprising. However, with some of the country's brightest prospects in their ranks, other clubs cannot afford to undermine the Reds either.
Aizawl, on the other hand, prematurely sacked head coach Manuel Retamero Fraile a few games into the campaign, with youth team caoch Jahar Das being promoted to the top job. Aizawl have the fewest number of top-flight experienced players in the league, which is why it will be a remarkable achievement if Jahar Das does manage to keep the club safe in the top-flight.
Rise of organised fan groups
One of the most positive developments for the I-League this season has been the rise of organised fan groups among different clubs. Barring Goa and the newly-born DSK Shivajians, almost every other club in the league has received strong home support.
Aizawl FC's fans have been a breath of fresh air for the league, with the club enjoying decent support even in their away games. While Bengaluru, Shillong Lajong and the two Kolkata clubs already have large fanbases, other I-League clubs have improved in this regard as well.
Mumbai FC fans, in particular, have amassed in large numbers for the club's games this season, using social media to create an organised form of support.
For a club whose future in the top-flight remains uncertain in case of a future merger between I-League and the Indian Super League, the Yellow Brigade's support has put forward a brilliant argument as to why the club deserves to be part of Indian football's future.