A revamped Mohammedan Sporting Club will start as firm favourites to book the lone spot for the I-League as the qualifying tournament begins here on Thursday behind closed doors to mark the resumption of sporting events in the country after a seven-month coronavirus-forced hiatus.
Bhawanipore FC play FC Bengaluru United at Saltlake Stadium in the opener of the tournament, followed by the match between city-based Mohammedan Sporting and Garhwal FC of Delhi at Kalyani stadium on Thursday.
The tournament, whose winner will qualify for the I-League beginning likely in December, is being held in the two venues under strict safety protocols in view of the pandemic.
The I-League qualifiers will be the first event in the country after COVID-19 pandemic brought all sporting calendar to a grinding halt in March. The last football match in the country was played on March 14 -- Indian Super League final in Goa -- which was held behind closed doors.
The group matches of the second division I-League too were stopped and the top team from each of the six groups was picked for the final round, which has now been re-christened as 'I-League Qualifier 2020'.
FC Kerala's pullout eventually made it a five-team tournament. Each team will play the other once in a round-robin format and the top team after the final match day on October 19 will gain entry to I-League 2020-21.
With some top signings from former I-League winners Aizawl FC, including defender Eze Kingsley, and the roping in of former East Bengal forward Willis Plaza and Nepalese international forward Abhishek Rijal, the 130-year-old Mohammedan Sporting will be the club to watch out for.
They are also the most experienced of the lot having featured in I-League 2013-14.
Mohammedan Sporting had also signed 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup team defender Anwar Ali who was later disallowed to play by the All India Football Federation after he was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition.
The stakes will also be high for the 'Black Panthers' as they seek to become the lone side from Kolkata in I-League this season -- to be held in West Bengal -- after the migration of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to ISL.
"Every match is like a final. I have signed proven players including the foreigners. Hopefully, we can take this team up and do well in I-League," Mohammedan Sporting coach Yan Law said in pre-match media conference.
The team has been camping in Kalyani for more than a month and will be well adapted to the conditions.
"For us, the first step is to get into I-League. We have a good team, and we have not had such a time for long."
City rivals Bhawanipore FC is also a century-old club and will dream big.
Coached by former Calcutta Football League-winning Mohun Bagan coach, Sankarlal Chakraborty, the side have roped in former NEROCA FC striker Philip Adjah. They also have roped in some experienced Indian players, though they will miss last season's CFL top scorer Ansumana Kromah who tested positive for COVID-19.
Garhwal FC's Nigerian captain Bala Dahir sounded confident of bagging the lone I-League spot. FC Bengaluru United also promised to put up a strong fight with former India captain Gouramangi Singh working as deputy to head coach Richard Hood.
Ahmedabad-based ARA FC will look to make history by becoming the first team from Gujarat to make the I-League.
October 8: Bhawanipore FC vs FC Bengaluru United; Mohammedan Sporting vs Garhwal FC.
October 11: Mohammedan Sporting vs ARA FC; Garhwal FC vs FC Bengaluru United.
October 14: Garhwal FC vs Bhawanipore FC; FC Bengaluru United vs ARA FC.
October 16: ARA FC vs Garhwal FC; Bhawanipore FC vs Mohammedan Sporting.
October 19: FC Bengaluru United vs Mohammedan Sporting; ARA FC vs Bhawanipore FC.
All matches at 2:30pm and 4:30pm.