I-League Power Rankings: Jose Barreto-like Baba Diawara top of the table
Mohun Bagan clinched their second I-League crown with a 1-0 win against Aizawl FC and NEROCA played out a thrilling 2-2 draw at home against Chennai City before the All India Football Federation suspended all league matches until March 31 -- thus deferring the Kolkata derby scheduled for March 15 as well.
This delay gives ESPN the chance to publish this month's power rankings early -- for the 12 matches that featured all 11 clubs in action. TRAU and Bagan were two of three clubs to have played three matches, and they have multiple entries this month. The No.2 position goes to a striker from NEROCA, the third team to play three games in March.
#10 Danish Farooq Bhat [Real Kashmir]
Danish returns to the power rankings after a month's absence for his outstanding winner against NEROCA at home. It was a match where he threatened throughout, playing in a withdrawn striker's role, and blazed a scorching volley just over the bar in the 37th minute. Five minutes on, he ghosted in from the left and placed a pinpoint header across the face of goal to give Real Kashmir their only win in two home games this month.
His ranking might have been higher but for a red card in the first half for a second bookable offence against East Bengal, a match Real Kashmir would go on to lose by a solitary goal. Danish was one of four players sent off in that game -- team-mates Robin Singh and Kallum Higginbotham suffered the same fate, as did Edmund Lalrindika of East Bengal.
#9 Givson Singh [Indian Arrows]
Givson Singh has long been talked about as an exciting prospect in Indian football, with his stint at the youth teams at Minerva Punjab first bringing him into the spotlight. A free-roaming midfielder with great ability from set pieces, he has been a key player in midfield at the Arrows.
He scored his first I-League goal in a home game against the club where he played most of his youth career, his injury-time penalty cancelling out an early Sanju Pradhan goal to earn his club their only point from two games this month.
#8 Victor Perez [East Bengal]
East Bengal, who had a poor February, made up some of their lost ground, grinding out four points from two away games. The man responsible for both results was central midfielder Victor Perez, who slotted home cool penalties against both Gokulam Kerala and Real Kashmir.
The first served to neutralize an early Marcus Joseph goal, while the second helped beat Real Kashmir in an ill-tempered affair in Srinagar. With his solid presence in midfield, Perez held the Kolkata side together in these two challenging games.
#7 Marcus Joseph [Gokulam Kerala]
Gokulam Kerala rediscovered a semblance of form in their two matches -- held to a 1-1 draw after leading at home against East Bengal and then picking up three points away to the powerful Churchill Brothers. These results keep them firmly in the chase for second spot, behind champions Bagan.
Joseph had a role to play in all three goals. He scored with a scorching piledriver from the edge of the box to set the scoring going against East Bengal. And his assists set up both Nathaniel Garcia and Henry Kisseka for the goals against Churchill Brothers -- both near-identical bits of industry down the left flank, where he outran his marker, swerved in and fired in teasing balls that were helped in to script a terrific win.
#6 Sayan Roy [TRAU]
TRAU were another team that had a good run in March -- although the month began on an inauspicious note for them, losing 3-1 at home to Mohun Bagan. Goalkeeper Sayan Roy conceded the three goals inside 23 minutes of that contest, though, including the first off the penalty spot against Fran Gonzalez.
Roy kept it clean for the rest of the game, and then kept clean sheets in TRAU's wins against Churchill Brothers and Indian Arrows. He was particularly exceptional in the second game -- his collection off set pieces against Churchill was good too -- twice denying Arrows striker Nikhil Raj, once at his near post and then from pretty much point-blank range.
#5 Joseba Beitia [Mohun Bagan]
For champions Bagan, Joseba Beitia continued to be the undisputed heartbeat of the team, setting up goals and converting some himself, as he did in the three-goal blitz in a span of nine minutes against TRAU, scoring the second himself.
Beitia also provided the assist for Baba Diawara that helped Bagan seal the title in a tight game against Aizawl, who had defended doggedly for the first 79 minutes in Kalyani. Beitia's run itself had pushed Aizawl back and then he spotted the narrowest of openings to play in a perfectly weighted ball for Diawara to pounce on. It was precision that we have come to identify with the Spanish midfielder time and again this season.
#4 Deepak Devrani [TRAU]
Deepak Devrani was once the next big thing in Indian football, having played for the first batch of the Indian Arrows almost a decade back, alongside Jeje Lalpekhlua. The central defender from Delhi has since fallen off the boil, playing every age-group for India but never making the grade to senior football, but this has been a better season from him, marshalling the backline of a team that relies heavily on grinding out results with their foreign strikers.
Devrani was terrific in defence against Churchill Brothers, keeping the likes of Willis Plaza and Dawda Ceesay at bay, and then chipped in with a fabulous 89th-minute winner against Arrows, picking up a ball that had bounced beyond him and dropping it into the far corner of the goal at full stretch. It was his first league goal in six seasons, which have included spells at FC Pune City, Mohun Bagan and Minerva Punjab.
#3 Katsumi Yusa [Chennai City]
Last month's topper -- who drops to three -- maintained a high standard of play across Chennai City's two games.
A second-half goal against former club Mohun Bagan not only ensured a 1-1 draw in Kalyani, it also brought a seven-match winning streak for the eventual champions to a halt. Katsumi continued his good work against NEROCA, in a game that Chennai would believe they should have won, having put in the effort to come back from a goal down to lead 2-1, before a late penalty allowed the hosts to share the spoils. Katsumi created the second goal for Adolfo Miranda with some creativity -- picking up a pass around the centre-line, sprinting with four opposition players surrounding him and putting away a through ball as he went to ground under a challenge.
#2 Phillip Adjah [NEROCA]
NEROCA have alternated between the sublime and the ridiculous this season, and with three games to go are probably the team with the greatest danger of competing with Aizawl FC for relegation this season. Ghanian striker Adjah has tried to lift them with his scoring prowess, though, with four of his eight goals for the campaign coming this month.
He starred with a hat-trick as NEROCA edged Punjab FC out 4-3 in an eventful contest in Imphal the same day that Bagan beat Aizawl to kill off the title race. Adjah was at it again in the last game of the month, played behind closed doors, scoring an injury time penalty to rescue a point against Chennai City.
#1 Baba Diawara [Mohun Bagan]
To top the power rankings, your performance has to stand out from everybody else's, and Bagan's Senegalese striker Baba Diawara has definitely let his numbers do the talking.
The former Sevilla and Getafe player scored the goal that helped Bagan beat Aizawl to confirm their fifth national league, but also got goals in the 1-1 draw against Chennai City and the 3-1 win away to TRAU. His run of scoring, which has fetched 10 goals in all and goals in each of his last nine matches since he joined Bagan in January, moved former Bagan legend Jose Barreto to say that he saw a bit of himself in Diawara. In particular, Barreto found similarities in the way he keeps his calm when in scoring positions and has adapted himself effortlessly to the demands of Indian football.