Aizawl face heavy congestion on first Asian journey
If the printed schedules of the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League for the 2017-18 season are anything to go by, India's two representatives in AFC competitions next year could have it tough, especially in the early stages of the AFC Champions League playoff for Aizawl FC and the AFC Cup qualifying playoffs for Bengaluru FC (BFC).
One issue, largely restricted to Aizawl, is having to play several of their I-League games with a 2 pm kickoff. Though the league spans the winter, when afternoons are milder, there is still the fear of injuries, apart from the possible lack of crowds on weekdays.
The major issue, though, is the spread and concentration of matches. BFC play their 18 ISL games over a gap of 103 days, roughly a game every six days, and Aizawl are slated to play their first 17 matches (the date for the 18th hasn't yet been announced) through 91 days at a similar average.
The difference is in how the matches are clustered: BFC's matches are considerably well spaced, with only three occasions when the team plays inside four days and only two further cases of matches within three days. They play three games in November and five each through December and January, before finishing with four in February and one game in March.
If they make the playoffs and subsequently the final, they will only play three more matches inside 16 days as of now.
Aizawl start with five games in November and December, before a big sequence of 12 matches from early January till the end of February -- that could become 17 matches if Asian club tournament results go their way. Aizawl enter the first round of playoffs for AFC's Champions League on January 16 as I-League champions. It is a one-off game, as is the second round, and the playoff match itself, scheduled successively on January 23 and January 30.
No Indian club has ever made it to the group stages of the Champions League, but Aizawl could be the first if they negotiate the three rounds of playoffs. That will give them two additional matches in February.
BFC play their AFC Cup playoffs across two legs in February, but this will only increase their number of matches played through February from four to six.
The fun could begin when the AFC Cup group stages begin, and if Aizawl fail to qualify for the Champions League and get placed in the same group as BFC -- as was the case with BFC themselves, when they were placed alongside Mohun Bagan in 2017 -- as the first two matchdays of the AFC Cup then fall during the ISL playoffs.
In every which way, it will be a tricky fixture list to balance for two teams that will be representing India at the Asian level. For Aizawl, representing a league that calls itself "India's top-flight", retaining the title will be that much tougher.