I-League: Holder Gokulam Kerala meets last year’s runner-up Churchill Brothers on opening day

Defending champion Gokulam Kerala FC will be facing former champion and last yearโ€™s runner-up Churchill Brothers in the opening round of the fresh edition of the Hero I-League, which gets underway at three venues situated in and around the city from Sunday.

In the other two matches Trau FC of Imphal will take on All India Football Federationโ€™s (AIFF) development side Indian Arrows while debutante Rajasthan United Club will meet Roundglass Punjab FC.

The three venues sharing the matches are โ€“ Mohun Bagan in Kolkata and the two district venues in Kalyani and Naihati.

The tournament this time has a robust field of 13 contenders, which is an increase of two over the 11 teams participating in the previous edition.

After former champion Chennai City FC expressed its inability to field a side this season, Mumbai-based Kenkre FC made its way through by virtue of finishing second in the I-League qualifiers. The champion of the qualifiers Rajasthan United and the club from Vizag, Sreenidi Deccan FC, which gained a direct entry, are the other newcomers.

Plan for I-League champion side playing in ISL from 2023 remains intact: AIFF

This apart, there are the other regular participants like Aizawl FC, Mohammedan Sporting (Kolkata), NEROCA FC (Imphal), Real Kashmir FC and Sudeva Delhi FC, giving a pan-Indian semblance to the tournament.

Despite being downgraded to the second tier of the countryโ€™s league hierarchy, I-League is expected to see some interesting contests among the sides that have a lot of fresh talents in their roster. Apart from the title, there are no other incentives this time as the AIFF has made it clear that promotion to the countryโ€™s top league โ€“ Indian Super League โ€“ will only start from the 2022-23 season. But the process of relegation will be restarted this time.

The tournament will be played in a bio-secure bubble like the previous season and the teams and the match officials will have to follow the specific protocols.

The competition format will also be repeated with all the teams playing each other once in a round-robin format in Phase 1. In the final phase, the top seven teams of the league table (Group A) will play for the title while the bottom six (group B) will be fighting relegation.

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