Football is back. After months of a lockdown induced hiatus, the ones who cannot do without the game have started taking to fields across the country in increasing numbers and now it is time for the professionals to strut their stuff in secure bio-bubbles.
Well, technically, the season kicked off with the I-League qualifiers in October, but India’s second division rarely ever plays out in the public eye. Mohammedan Sporting Club, that grand old Kolkatan club formed in 1891, gained promotion, in case one is interested.
Onto the seventh edition of the Indian Super League then. The closed league opened up their doors for only the second time to accommodate a giant of Indian football in East Bengal. They are a welcome addition as will be the other legacy club in Mohun Bagan, though their route in was via a merger with three-time winners and defending champions, ATK.
ATK Mohun Bagan have had an interesting last few months. Since the combined entity came into being on June 1, there have been numerous disagreements with Bagan’s fans on almost every facet of the new squad. The disbanding of last season’s I-League winning coaching staff has not gone down well nor has the retention of only one player from that team. Two-time ISL winning coach, Antonio López Habas, will argue that a winning combination has to be left untouched and he has a point. ATK recruited very well last season and frankly, looked to have talent surplus to requirements. Any additions would have needed to come from the top end of the market and in Sandesh Jhingan, Tiri, Subhasish Bose, Bradden Inman and Manvir Singh, they managed just that. A fourth title, in maroon-and-green this time, looks a distinct possibility.
Last season was a big disappointment for Bengaluru FC. It was the first time in six seasons that the club had failed to win a major trophy. Their performances did not merit it either as the club fell below their usual standards, domestically and in Asia. They had the meanest defence in the league, but goals were hard to come by. They have tried to address that by buying Norwegian striker, Kristian Opseth, and Brazilian frontman, Cleiton Silva. Albert Serrán departs after a couple of stellar seasons in the heart of defence but Francisco Gonzales is expected to fill the breach. The Spaniard scored ten goals for Mohun Bagan last year and his set-piece prowess will come in handy for a side that takes great pride in excelling at that aspect of the game. Bengaluru’s prospects, as usual, will rely heavily on the form of talismanic captain, Sunil Chhetri. At 36, he is approaching the twilight of his career but if India’s best player can raise his game after a poor outing last time around, the Blues will be right in the mix.
Chennaiyin FC rose from the dead last season to make the playoffs, and eventually, the final. The man who took them there, Owen Coyle, has packed his bags and left for Jamshedpur taking Golden Boot winner, Nerijus Valskis, with him. The Red Miners returned the favour by sending experienced midfielder, Memo, across and he will form part of a revamped foreign contingent. Only Eli Sabia and Rafael Crivellaro remain from the previous squad and new coach, Czaba László, has a job on his hands. The Indian players have largely been untouched and Anirudh Thapa’s progress will be keenly watched. A maddening inconsistency has dogged this franchise since inception with the team either making the playoffs or settling at the bottom of the table. This could be the year of the mid-table finish.
SC East Bengal did not face the same troubles their arch-rivals did in settling on a name. Kolkata-headquartered Shree Cement picked up a majority stake in the club and they went the RB Leipzig route with the nomenclature. While registered with the IFA as the Shree Cement East Bengal Foundation, they will be referred to as Sporting Club East Bengal for all practical purposes. The club have roped in former Liverpool legend, Robbie Fowler, as the new coach and the Englishman has a herculean task ahead of him. The squad has been built from scratch and with only a few weeks to acclimatize themselves with each other, expectations shall be muted. A few Indian players in Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Jeje Lalpekhlua, CK Vineeth and Balwant Singh will hope to rehabilitate themselves after some tough times but do not expect the red-and-gold brigade to set the league on fire.
FC Goa have a bone to pick with Mumbai City FC. Last season’s group stage table toppers and India’s representative in the 2021 AFC Champions League have been raided with most of their best talent making the trip up the coast. With the departure of Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, Hugo Boumous and captain, Mandar Rao Dessai, the Gaurs have lost the spine of a side that thrilled Indian football fans for three seasons. Other mainstays in Carlos Peña, Manvir Singh, Jackichand Singh and the all-time ISL top scorer, Ferrán Corominas, have also left the club. Thirty-nine-year-old Juan Ferrando takes over at the helm and has promised more of the football that made Goa the favourite of many a neutral fan. In new captain, Edu Bedia, and local boys like Brandon Fernandes, Lenny Rodrigues and Seriton Fernandes, they still have players who can deliver on that front. This will still be a season for a rebuild though and the performances of their new Spanish signings will dictate whether they make the playoffs.
A Roca will be managing Hyderabad FC this season, but it won’t be the one they had in mind initially. Albert Roca left in August to join Ronald Koeman’s coaching team at Barcelona, throwing Hyderabad’s plans into disarray. Enter Manuel Marquez Roca. He takes over at a franchise that has let players go wholesale after the previous season’s last-place finish. A semblance of a squad has been put together in haste with the defence line looking majorly under-staffed. Adil Khan may have to fill in at centre-back yet again with Odei Onaindia Zabala the sole foreign recruit in that position. Aridane Santana had a good season with Odisha last year before injury cut it short and his signing looks to be an astute one. There have been a few encouraging results in pre-season but a lack of quality Indian players in the squad might hamper efforts once the show gets on the road.
Jamshedpur FC will seek to break their playoff jinx with the appointment of their fourth coach in as many seasons. It has been a tale of diminishing returns since they joined the league in 2017 and they will be hoping that Owen Coyle can work the same magic that he did at Chennaiyin. Goals have always been a problem area for the franchise and hopefully in Nerijus Valskis, they will have a solution. It will be strange to see the Red Miners line up without Tiri and Memo, two reliable fixtures at the club during their three seasons there. They will be sorely missed but Jamshedpur seem to have made a few shrewd foreign acquisitions unlike the previous season. They take great pride in developing young Indian talent in that neck of the woods and if the likes of Amarjit Singh Kiyam deliver, the established order at the top end of the table could be disrupted.
Onto Kerala Blasters then, the perennial underachievers of this league. They have a new manager, of course, and this time it is Kibu Vicuña who has been tasked with returning the southern giants (in name) to the playoffs. His Mohun Bagan team dominated the I-League last season but this is a different ball game altogether. Another rebuild ensued following last season’s disappointment and the Manjappada have lost two big players in Bartholomew Ogbeche and Sandesh Jhingan. The contracts of key Indian players have been extended though, and they have bought foreign players with experience at the top level in Europe. It might benefit Kerala to be playing without the harsh glare of the spotlight back home and the climes of Goa may bring the best out of them. Or so their long-suffering fans will hope.
The City Football Group have wasted no time in transplanting its DNA onto Mumbai City FC. A team that have historically had a pragmatic approach; never scoring more than twenty-five goals in a regular season, have imported Sergio Lobera’s attacking philosophy at Goa: lock, stock and barrel. In addition to former Goa stalwarts, the new squad also include Bartholomew Ogbeche and Adam Le Fondre, who has arrived on loan from Sydney FC. The Nigerian has scored 27 goals in 34 ISL matches and the Englishman has an equally impressive record up front in Australia. With astute Indian signings as well, the Islanders finally have a squad that can deliver on a title. For all the beautiful football, Lobera always seemed to stumble at the final hurdle at Goa. The new owners will demand that he go one step further this season.
NorthEast United go into every season as massive underdogs. Excepting a surprise playoff finish in 2018-19, there hasn’t been much to write home about with their results. With one of the lowest budgets in the league, it is always an uphill struggle for the Highlanders and this season will not be much different. They will have the youngest manager in the league in thirty-five-year-old Gerard Nus Casanova and he will have nineteen new players to integrate into his squad with fifteen heading the other way. NorthEast operate in the lower echelons of the transfer market and a lot of their recruits have come from the I-League or other smaller teams. There are only two Indian players with over twenty appearances in the ISL and that is a huge concern. They will have a fully fit Federico Gallego from the off though and in Portuguese winger, Luis Machado, a player who could be a surprise package. As usual, international recruits will make-or-break NorthEast’s season but as things stand, they have a difficult road ahead.
I would personally have loved to see Josep Gombau at the helm for a third season at Odisha FC. The Spaniard put out sides filled with young Indian talent who improved with every minute they spent out on the pitch. The squad showed the maddening inconsistency associated with young sides, but last season provided enough clues about the progress the project had made over the last few years. Sadly, it was not to be and an experienced, pragmatic manager in Stuart Baxter has taken over. He could very well be the man to take the franchise into the playoffs. Gombau has left behind a strong Indian core and the Scotsman has picked his foreign players well. Defense wasn’t a strong point over the last few seasons and Baxter has addressed that with the signings of former Newcastle United defender, Steven Taylor and Jacob Tratt, who has moved from Perth Glory. Manuel Onwu, who impressed on loan from Bengaluru FC last season, will be expected to provide the goals. It is Marcelinho’s move from Hyderabad which is most intriguing. The Brazilian is one of the all-time leading scorers in the league with 31 goals and 18 assists in his four seasons. His temperament has been called into question over the last couple of campaigns with disciplinary issues coming to the fore. A free role in front of an organized midfield could bring the best out of him though, and it will be fascinating to see if the player who first made a name for himself at Delhi Dynamos in 2016 turns up ready to take the league by storm again. If he does, Odisha will do well.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league will be played behind closed doors this season in Goa. The Fatorda Stadium in Margao, the GMC Athletic Stadium in Bambolim and the Tilak Maidan Stadium in Vasco will host all 115 matches. Most leagues around the world have thrown up surprise results in these unusual times and the spectacle could be enhanced if the ISL followed suit. The situation is ripe for a winner to emerge beyond the three clubs who have already done so and the next few months should provide great entertainment and a fillip to the game in India.
Over to you then, Kerala Blasters and ATK Mohun Bagan. Let’s get this show on the road.