Don Bosco players sweat it out during a practice session at their school ground in Matunga recently. Pic/Atul Kamble
Don Bosco players sweat it out during a practice session at their school ground in Matunga recently. Pic/Atul Kamble

It's that time of the year when eager school kids play the beautiful game alongside some of the toughest competition at the Mumbai Schools Sports Association-organised under-16 Division-I league that begins at Azad Maidan today.

Defending champions Don Bosco 'A' (Matunga), who won both, the MSSA boys' U-16 Div-I League as well as knockout tournaments last season, are ready to defend their crown in their season-opener against Don Bosco 'A' (Borivli) today.

Last season, the Matunga lads beat St Stanislaus 'A' Bandra 4-1 via tiebreaker to win the league. In the knockout tournament, they beat Jamnabai Narsee 2-0.

St Stanislaus' new coach Henry Picardo
St Stanislaus' new coach Henry Picardo

Don Bosco skipper Mannan Dang, who was an integral part of the team last year too, oozed confidence. "Expectations are always high since we are the defending champions, but we are not afraid of the challenge. Personally, I am in Class 10, so this title will be the perfect farewell gift for me," said Dang, who went on to name his key men in the campaign.

"Dwayne Pereira, Sherwin D'Souza and Priyansh Harjai, who were all part of last year's U-16 side, and some new players like Nathan Murzello, Rohan Fernando, Floyd D'Souza and Ansh Tauro, who have come into this team from last year's U-14 side, will be our key players," added Dang, 15, who plays as a striker.

St Stanislaus (Bandra) have roped in former Mumbai FC team manager and ex-Air India player Henry Picardo as coach. "It's just been 10 days since I joined Stanislaus as coach, so I'm still learning the system here. We'll take each game as it comes. Our team is a good mix of experienced and young players. Saurabh Gupta, Dale Verhoven and Kyeron Kanidoria, all of whom were part of last year's side will be important players," said Picardo.

Jamnabai Narsee (Juhu), who were beaten by Don Bosco last season, have a good chance of going all the way this time, since most of their players were part of last year's unit. "A majority of out team comprises of last year's U-16 side. Mojtaba Hussaini, Dishay Shan, Anshul Budhraja and Ved Chowdhary will lead the charge," said Jamnabai coach Cyril D'Souza.

Former champions, Campion 'A' (Colaba), who stopped Don Bosco from winning their seventh consecutive title in 2015, have a good crop of players this time too. "It's unfortunate that we couldn't continue our good form since winning the MSSA title in 2015. But this year we have some good players like Aryan Muzumdar, Jonathan Duckworth and Amritya Patel.

Our team is a very balanced one. If we play as per plan, we should reach the final — that's our target. Don Bosco and St Stanislaus are teams we can't afford to take lightly," said Campion coach Wilfred Alva.

U-16 Div-I groups
Group A: Don Bosco 'A' (Matunga), Christ Church (Byculla), St Dominic Savio (Andheri), Don Bosco 'A' (Borivli)
Group B: St Stanislaus 'A' (Bandra), Swami Vivekanand International School (Kandivli), St Mary's SSC (Mazagaon), St Lawrence (Kandivli)
Group C: Jamnabai Narsee 'A' (Juhu), Navy Children (Colaba), St Mary's ICSE 'A' (Mazagaon), Smt RSB Arya Vidyamandir (Juhu)
Group D: Campion 'A' (Cooperage), St Joseph (Wadala), St Francis D'Assisi 'A' (Borivli), The Cathedral and John Connon (Fort)