New Delhi:Buoyed by their progress to the AFC Cup semi-finals, Dempo once again look the team to beat when the second edition of the I-League gets underway on Thursday.
The team, which had been playing and preying together for a number of seasons, have risen gradually ever since they went down in 2000. But now that they are at the top, they are not going to let go of that mantle easily.
Armando Colaco's boys have won the title twice in the last two seasons - in 2006 when it was the National Football League and last year after it was re-christened the I-League - and would be now looking for a hat-trick when they start their campaign against JCT in Goa on Sunday.
Earlier, Dempo won the then National Football League consecutively in 2003 and 2004.
East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick had also dreamt of a similar feat they could never achieve it. They finished a disappointing sixth last season and at one point had fetched just eight points from the first 12 matches before Manoranjan Bhattacharya turned the tide.
Bhattacharya have been replaced by India assistant coach Stanley Rozario after a third-place finish in the IFA Premier Division League.
With India players like Sunil Chettri, Subrata Pal, Renedy Singh, Mehrajuddin Wadao and Syed Rahim Nabi in the squad, the fans would be hoping for the team to come good this time around.
It is the red-and-gold brigade who set the ball rolling when they take on debutantes Chirag United in the opener at the Barasat Stadium.
The Nigerian's goalscoring prowess is well known but has been found out in recent matches. He looked a pale shadow of himself in the Durand Cup and ought to improve his work ethic if the team is to make a serious bid for the title.
Mohun Bagan, under Bencherifa, have retained the Kolkata league and are now awaiting the big test. Bhaichung Bhutia and Jose barreto, despite their age, packs quite a punch. But over-dependence on the two could prove to be their undoing.
Mohammedan Sporting, the other team to make a re-entry to the elite league, would be boosted by their strong second-place showing in the IFA league.
But Shabbir Ali's boys need to grow up fast to counter the big boys.
Done in by the AIFF's transfer deadline which got over before the second division I-League finished, Mohammedan Sporting along with debutantes Mumbai FC, Vasco and Chirag United were left struggling to get the right kind of players.
At a stage where the fittest only survive, they would be hard put not to go down after having worked so hard to reach the top flight.
Durand Cup champions Mahindra United look the best bet to challenge Dempo's authority. Edeh Chidi's inclusion have done them a world of good and apart from retaining Steven Dias and NP Pradeep, coach Derrick Pereira further boosted his midfield with Paresh Shivalkar.
His former club, Air India, though have a tough job to stay afloat. Their biggest plus in recent years was the Cooperage. But with infrastructural problems plaguing the stadium, the ground could be de-listed from the I-League venue and could pose the biggest problem for Bimal Ghosh, who have lost several first team regulars in the transfer market.
Once again, Churchill Brothers, Mahindra United and JCT along with the Kolkata duo of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal who would be looking to wrest the crown away from Dempo.
The only thing that could affect the defending champions' campaign is the AFC Cup. However, having successfully seen his team through to the semi-finals, Colaco would now what it takes to keep the chasing pack at bay.
The same day, Sporting Clube de Goa take on Vasco at Goa's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Vasco are back in the top flight after going down in the 2004-05 season.