I-League returns with 3 new clubs & promise of bigger things

I-League 2021-22: Amid a raging pandemic and lots of questions, the I-League is all set to return but this time with three new teams. The competition might be played in one city due to bio-bubble restrictions but the action will now include two new centres and a return to one of the old hunting grounds. Follow I-League updates on InsideSport.IN

Even if the league might have effectively been turned into the second division, but with the emergence of young players every time and the league going down to the wire in each of the last few seasons, the tournament has always delivered in terms of talent and high-voltage action. And now with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) confirming that the champions from the 2023 season are set to be promoted to the Indian Super League, the stakes are as high as can be.

I-League 2021-22: I-League all set for return with three new teams & promise of bigger things to come

Also read: I-League: Robertson counting on Real Kashmir’s experience and squad depth for upcoming season

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New teams

The most exciting aspect of the 2021-22 I-League season will be the addition of three new teams — Sreenidi Deccan FC, Rajasthan United FC and Kenkre FC. Sreenidi made the cut after AIFF invited bids for new teams while Rajasthan United created history by winning the I-League Qualifiers as they became the first team from their state to play at this level. Kenkre’s last-minute entry was possible after Chennai City FC were not allowed for failing to comply with Club Licensing Regulations.

I-League 2021-22: I-League all set for return with three new teams & promise of bigger things to come

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Both Sreenidi and Rajasthan’s entry means the league has now expanded to 12 cities with two entirely new regions in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. Kenkre’s entry signifies a return of footballing action to Maharashtra after four years.

Sunando Dhar, the I-League CEO, had expressed his happiness with the addition of three new teams and highlighted how the league now boasts of a pan-India presence.

I-League 2021-22: I-League all set for return with three new teams & promise of bigger things to come

“I am extremely excited for the new season and hope it goes down to the wire like last time. The addition of new teams from Rajasthan, Mumbai and the Deccan region will give more chances to players from different regions. We have done well to spread the league across the country after the initial years of multiple teams coming from Kolkata, Goa and Mumbai. But it is important to get teams from metropolitan cities in terms of commercial implications,” said Sunando Dhar.

2021-22 I League season will start from December 26 and will be played in three stadiums in and around Kolkata — the Mohun Bagan ground, the picturesque Kalyani Stadium, and the Naihati Stadium.

Each year, the league sees quite a few youngsters making a mark and eventually being snapped up for lucrative sums by ISL clubs. But when it comes to giving opportunities to young Indian players, the I-League still remains the most attractive destination.

I-League 2021-22: I-League all set for return with three new teams & promise of bigger things to come

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Bio-bubble restrictions remain intact

After successfully hosting I-League qualifiers and the I-League last time around, the AIFF have opted for a similar bio-bubble arrangement. However, due to the addition of three new teams, the number of hotels have gone up.

Four hotels have been earmarked for the purpose and players, support staff, referees and officials along with volunteers will be housed in these bio-bubbles. Regular RT-PCR tests and monitoring body vitals on a daily basis will be undertaken and even hotel staff have been included in the bubble arrangement.

I-League 2021-22: I-League all set for return with three new teams & promise of bigger things to come

“Since there are more teams this time we have booked more hotels as bio-bubbles. We are following the same protocols of last time. It is not easy for the players and officials to remain locked up for three and half months in a hotel. Hopefully, we get the same kind of support from the teams like last year,” Sunando Dhar added.

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New format, potential contenders

The AIFF will continue with the same format they initiated last season. As per the tournament format, all the teams will play against each other once in a round-robin format in Phase 1, before being split into two groups in Phase 2 of the league.

The top seven teams will make up Group A and the bottom six will make up Group B. Once the divisions are made after the end of Phase I, the teams of each group will play against each another in a single leg round-robin format. While the teams in Group A will play to determine the champions, those in Group B will be in a relegation battle.

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I-League 2021-22: I-League all set for return with three new teams & promise of bigger things to come

Last year’s champions Gokulam Kerala will once again be one of the favourites but it will not be easy. Real Kashmir FC, fresh from their IFA Shield exploits, will be gunning for the title. Two-time champions Churchill Brothers had lost out on goal difference last season but will be hoping to go one step further.

RoundGlass Punjab have built up a formidable squad and with former I-League winning coach Ashley Westwood joining, they will not be too far away. Kolkata giants Mohammedan Sporting can never be counted out.

Last year the relegation clause was removed due to financial constraints on the clubs and NEROCA FC escaped after finishing last. But this time, the threat of relegation looms large. The new clubs will try to survive their first season.

Where do I watch Live stream and live telecast of I-League 2021-22?

1Sports will live telecast all the 140-plus matches and the channel will also live-stream the games.

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