Beitia, Naorem lead Mohun Bagan charge in I-League power rankings
Mohun Bagan were the biggest I-League gainers in January, and not just following the announcement of their merger with ATK and automatic elevation to the Indian Super League (ISL) next season. The individual efforts from Bagan players is reflected in ESPN's power rankings for January, where Fran Gonzalez retains his place from last month, and is now joined by Joseba Beitia and Nongdamba Naorem.
#10 Vikram Pratap Singh [Indian Arrows]
The Arrows could earn only one point in their games through January, suggesting again that most I-League clubs are more than a match for the Indian colts, but their 1-1 draw at home against NEROCA was thanks to a Vikram Pratap Singh goal.
The former India Under-16 captain plays as a wide forward in coach Shanmugam Venkatesh's 4-2-3-1 formation, and his ability to link up with other players moving forward often gives the Arrows their best chance of threatening the opposition defence.
#9 Fran Gonzalez [Mohun Bagan]
Mohun Bagan remain the team to beat this season, and much of that has had to do with some composed work by defensive midfielder Fran Gonzalez and his teammates at the back, including goalkeeper Sankar Roy, whose four clean sheets are the most for any one keeper. Fran has been a standout threat from set pieces as well, a quality that helped him debut at No.2 on ESPN's power rankings for the previous month.
In January, he had a relatively quieter period in front of goal, but starred with a thumping header off a corner in Bagan's 3-2 win away to champions Chennai City FC on the last day.
#8 Gnohere Krizo [Real Kashmir]
Real Kashmir coach David Robertson still prefers a defence-based strategy of unlocking other teams, leaving strikers Kallum Higginbotham and Krizo to do a lot more of tracking back and retrievals.
Despite this, Krizo had a good January, scoring two goals -- to earn a hard-earned point at home against Punjab FC, and then rounding off a 2-0 win away to Arrows with a successful penalty.
#7 Kassim Aidara [East Bengal]
East Bengal had a swift fall from being title contenders to becoming part of a mid-table logjam this January, winning just one match and losing the other three. Aidara was a big presence in central midfield for them, though, defending well, winning tackles, and even getting a goal against Gokulam Kerala in a surprise 3-1 defeat at home.
If Aidara had a few more around him putting in a similar effort, the club might still have been somewhere in title contention, rather than losing a Kolkata derby and parting ways with their coach Alejandro Menendez.
#6 Israil Gurung [Churchill Brothers]
With Willis Plaza missing games in January through injury, Churchill Brothers have looked short on ideas when in the opposition box, but their build-up play continues to be one of their strengths. Israil Gurung has long been considered one of the best wide midfielders in India, and he has enhanced his reputation each time he has been given the chance.
His five assists make him the best on that count for the season, impressive considering he is most often used off the bench.
#5 Naocha Singh [TRAU]
TRAU are the pacesetters of the chasing pack in the I-League, alongside Punjab FC, and teenager Naocha Singh has been a massive influence in a three-man attack, alongside Premjit Singh and the big centre forward, Princewell Emeka. TRAU won all their four matches played in January, and Naocha scored in a 2-0 win against Arrows, and in a 2-1 win in the I-League's first Imphal derby against NEROCA.
With a run of five successive home games to come towards the end of February, TRAU will need to keep their winning run going to mathematically put pressure on Mohun Bagan at the top of the table, and Naocha will have a role to play with his tireless running and finishing.
#4 Nongdamba Naorem [Mohun Bagan]
It has been over two years since Nongdamba Naorem made a name for himself, not just in Indian football but across the world with a stunning goal for Indian Arrows, but it is in this season that the 20-year-old is beginning to mature into a dangerous attacking midfielder.
He has combined well with the predominantly Spanish attacking line for the league leaders, and his increasing confidence the past month was evident with goals in away wins against Kashmir and NEROCA, bagging an assist in the latter.
#3 Marcus Joseph [Gokulam Kerala]
Much was expected from Gokulam Kerala this season, but their indifferent form has been a source of concern. Trinidad and Tobago striker Marcus Joseph has still been a consistent performer for them, chipping in with crucial goals through January. He began with the only goal in a 1-1 draw against Aizawl, then helped round off a big 3-1 win away against East Bengal, and also got the winner in an emotional home game against Churchill Brothers.
With a couple of matches to catch up with Mohun Bagan, they could still pose some questions in the title race, but they will need positive results more consistently.
#2 Aser Dipanda Dicka [Punjab FC]
Cameroonian striker Dipanda has been an I-League top scorer in the past, and looks set to go for the Golden Boot yet again, leading the charts with his eight goals. In January, he helped salvage a point against Mohun Bagan, and then scored the first hat-trick of the season during a 3-2 win against NEROCA.
While Dipanda and Punjab are snapping at their heels, Bagan will know that the title race will stay on.
#1 Joseba Beitia [Mohun Bagan]
Bagan have been the most consistent team of the season, and find the top of the table as just reward for their efforts. The man pulling the strings in midfield, and indeed doubling up as the biggest striking threat as a false no.9, is Spaniard Joseba Beitia.
Specifically in January, Beitia put Bagan on the road to victory with a goal apiece against Real Kashmir and East Bengal. He has also been exquisite with his dead-ball deliveries, his five assists keeping him atop the charts alongside the aforementioned Gurung.