Indian Football

ISL 2: Will the foreign football stars step up this year?

With the second edition of the ISL kicking off, a look at the chances of the eight competing teams.

The second season of the Indian Super League kicked off on Saturday, October 2 when Chennaiyin FC played host to defending champions Atletico de Kolkata in the opener. In its first season, the ISL proved to be a giant success with the who’s who in Bollywood and cricket getting involved in the capacity of owners and ambassadors to raise the profile of the league.

Stadium attendances soared and grabbed eyeballs all over the world. Viewership figures exceeded all expectations, both on TV and digital platforms. Commercial partners made merry and the ISL clubs too saw major revenues (though they still suffered hefty losses). The quality of production for a non-cricket sport in India was nothing short of revolutionary. And the football too, lest we forget, was far more captivating and competitive than initially anticipated.

The Bengaluru boys

As ISL 2015 kicks off, all signs point to an even bigger and better season of football. For starters, the boys from Bengaluru FC have finally joined the party. Before the opening season of ISL, the then I-league champions Bengaluru FC – widely regarded as the most professionally run club in the country – refused to loan out its players for the event, thereby depriving the ISL of some of India’s best players and hurting the credibility of the tournament.

Of the Rs. 7.22 crore spent in the ISL auction ahead of this season, Bengaluru FC players fetched Rs. 4.52 Crore. Mumbai City bagged India’s most popular footballer Sunil Chhetri, while the cornerstone of FC Pune City’s squad overhaul were the purchases of India’s brightest young players Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Jakichand Singh.

In other major coups, Delhi Dynamos were successful in acquiring striker Robin Singh and Chennaiyin FC bought central midfielder Thoi Singh, while Atletico de Kolkata snapped up right-back Rino Anto and midfielder Irata Azumi.

Pre-season tours

The clubs are much better prepared than they were prior to last season. Seven of the eight clubs (as opposed to two last year) travelled abroad to destinations like Dubai, Turkey, Europe and South Africa to avail world-class training facilities and play friendly matches. Only Kerala Blasters chose to stay at home and preferred to let its players acclimatise to local conditions.

ISL teams are thus expected to show a greater degree of cohesion and hit the ground running. This will translate into better quality of football on the pitch. Higher fitness levels too should sustain this quality and injuries midway through the season could well be avoided. Last year’s early pacesetters, Kolkata and Chennai, had seen a notable decline in performance levels in the second half of the season owing to player fatigue and injuries. Clubs appear to have learned their lessons, stressing on the need for rotation and squad depth.

Foreign talent

Speaking of lessons learnt; most clubs have adopted a smarter approach to acquiring foreign talent. Big-name oldies, who only hindered their team’s progress, have given way to lesser-known younger players. Effectiveness on the field has taken precedence over stature. The impact of Elano and Luis Garcia, the league’s two youngest marquee players, on their respective clubs’ fortunes last season would’ve shaped the mindset of the owners. The average age of marquee players is only a little over 36 – nearly three years less than last season.

Chennaiyin FC’s Elano, last season’s top scorer with eight goals, is the only designated marquee player to return for the second season. Striker Nicolas Anelka has been upgraded to a marquee player-manager status at Mumbai City FC, replacing the injury-prone Swedish midfielder Freddie Ljungberg who could conjure up only a few minutes for the club in season one.

Delhi Dynamos had a turbulent time last year in dealing with their expensive hire Alessandro Del Piero – the Italian legend’s old legs simply didn’t fit into the coach’s plans. The club has done well to replace him with former Premier League stars John Arne Riise and Florent Malouda, even though on paper the club’s new manager Brazilian great Roberto Carlos also doubles up as its marquee player.

Atletico de Kolkata and NorthEast United FC have gone for the Portuguese duo of Helder Postiga and Simao Sabrosa respectively. Postiga, aged 33, played for Deportivo in the Spanish league as recently as May 2015 while Simao, 35, was last part of the Espanyol squad in the same league in 2014.

At FC Goa, one World Cup winner has replaced another with Brazilian centre-back Lucio taking over the mantle of marquee player from Robert Pires whose lack of fitness drew heavy criticism from manager Zico. And finally, the Kerala Blasters have opted for centre-back Carlos Marchena who was part of Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning squad.

The managers

Continuity was always expected to be a huge challenge in ISL. Only three clubs have retained their managers: Zico at FC Goa, Marco Materazzi at Chennaiyin FC and Antonio Lopez Habas at Atletico de Kolkata. These clubs have thus also retained a sense of identity which is likely to give them an edge over the competition.

With the addition of Atletico’s creative lynchpin Jofre Mateu and seven Brazilian players to the squad, the Goans promise more flair and flamboyance this season. Tough-tackling Chennaiyin too have added three key signings: Atletico’s title-winning duo goalkeeper Apoula Edel Bete and forward Fikru Teferra, and midfielder Thoi Singh. Both clubs have also retained their Indian core.

Habas’s Atletico, on the other hand, have chopped and changed a lot but at least retained its centre-midfield pairing of Borja Fernandez and Oftense Nato along with Josemi in central defence. Iain Hume, who was awarded the Golden Ball last season, is a worthy replacement for the feisty Fikru and will join Postiga in attack. A whole host of unremarkable but potentially effective foreign signings have also arrived at the club, including Javi Lara from Spanish club Eibar.

Loaded in attack

Mumbai City boasts of a fearsome attacking line-up. Supporting the Chhetri-Anelka strike partnership will be Andre Moritz and new-signing Sony Norde – the Haitian who took the I-League by storm earlier this year – with former Premier League forward Frederic Piquionne waiting in reserve. But the addition of Irish international centre-back Darren O'Dea could be the game-changer for Mumbai as they conceded the most number of goals last season.

In the same vein as Mumbai City, Delhi Dynamos too appear to be loaded in attack. Malouda, Riise, Robin Singh, Adil Nabi and Seminlen Doungel are some of the key signings that join the flamboyant Gustavo Dos Santos in attack. But an over-reliance on Indian players in defence could see them in trouble.

Last season’s two lowest-scoring clubs, NorthEast United FC and Kerala Blasters, will hope to find more bite in attack. Both clubs have new managers: Venezuelan coach Cesar Farias at NEUFC and former England coach Peter Taylor at Kerala Blasters. The addition of Simao and former Premier League forward Diomansy Kamara will help NEUFC score more goals but the club’s inexperienced Indian core simply may not be good enough to lift them from the bottom of the table.

The Blasters, on the other hand, let go of their top-scorer Iain Hume and are now counting on the new pairing of Englishmen Chris Dagnall and Sanchez Watt to deliver the goods. It’s quite a gamble. But at least the club’s defensive core remains intact if not reinforced with the versatile Sandesh Jhingan leading the way. Kerala conceded the least number of goals last season which made up for a lack of goals.

Pune – the dark horse

Under new manager David Platt, a revamped FC Pune City appears to be the most improved team on paper and is likely to be one on the field as well. The owners chose not to retain any foreign player from last season and build virtually from scratch – including an impressive support staff.

Homegrown players such as Lyngdoh, Jakichand and defender Gouramangi Singh have been roped in to give the team an impressive Indian core. But the addition of the former Premier League quartet –forwards Adrian Mutu and Tuncay Sanli, midfielder Didier Zokora and defender Roger Johnson – gives Pune City fans plenty to look forward to this season.

With changes galore throughout the league, another highly competitive and unpredictable season of ISL is expected to unfold in the next couple of months.

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