The sixth edition of the Indian Super League begins on Friday but there’s much more excitement surrounding the league this time around after being promoted as India’s premier football division as per the recent AFC roadmap.
The elevation to the top also grants them the AFC Champions League spot, previously reserved for the I-League, which had been India’s top division for the past 23 years. The continental slot will be granted to the ISL league toppers and not winners, giving teams the opportunity to fight for much more than just the trophy.
There will be the usual favourites like Bengaluru FC and FC Goa, but as a new season of the ISL kicks off, expect plenty of twists and turns.
Defending champions Bengaluru FC and runners-up FC Goa, the two teams that stood out last season with their style of play, have managed to retain the core of their squads and should be the neutrals’ choices to go all the way.
There is no denying Bengaluru and Goa are strong contenders, but all teams have made clever moves in the market and the stage has been set for the 2019-’20 ISL.
Let’s look at the ‘favourites’, first. Bengaluru FC should head that list. The Blues have been able to identify areas that need improvement and have strengthened the team with two key signings – Ashique Kuruniyan and Raphael Augusto, both of whom have starred for their former teams in previous ISL seasons.
FC Goa have not added a single new foreigner to their roster and have retained six foreign players from last season, including ace defender Mourtada Fall, midfield maestro Ahmed Jahouh and Golden Boot winner Ferran Corominas. Add the talented Indian bunch consisting of Brandon Fernandes, Mandar Rao Dessai and Manvir Singh to the mix and they have a squad to go one step further than last season.
The importance of finishing first is not lost on BFC’s coach Carles Cuadrat:
“We have been champions of the regular season for the last two seasons. We know how difficult it is to get it, we will now try to get it three times. It means a lot more this year with the Asian place (AFC Champions League qualifiers) going to the league winner, and that gives the guys more reason to fight for that spot,” he is quoted as saying by Sportstar.
The new ISL season will also hove few of the finest tactical brains on the sidelines. NorthEast United has Robert Jarni at the helm, replacing Eelco Schattorie who has joined Kerala Blasters. ATK has welcomed back Antonio Habas under whom they lifted the trophy in 2014.
Last season saw 254 goals being scored by the 10 teams during the league stages and the upcoming season is expected to be an even better goal-fest, with few teams boasting of reputed goal scorers.
NorthEast United FC took many by surprise with the signing of Ghana international and former Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan, who is as proven as there can be when it comes to scoring goals. There is no reason why the Highlanders can’t target for a semi-final finish again.
Kerala Blasters FC, who are on the back of two disappointing seasons, are banking on Bartholomew Ogbeche to solve their woes in front of goal with a new-look squad. Only Goa’s Ferran Corominas scored more goals than Ogbeche last season.
Meanwhile Jorge Costa’s Mumbai City FC will also hope to challenge for the title after finishing in the top four last season. They have a prolific scorer in their ranks in Modou Sougou who will be expected to pick up from where he left off last season.
Coming to the summer transfer window, no team made as many heads turn as ATK. The former champions have signed plenty of top-notch foreign players and look possibly the strongest on paper.
Chennaiyin FC, who finished at the bottom of the pool, have given themselves a new look and appeared hugely competitive during pre-season friendlies.
New entrants Hyderabad FC and Odisha FC have managed to assemble a competitive squad in a short span of time. Hyderabad has experienced campaigners who know the league well and Odisha has a bunch of talented Indian and foreign players with the likes of Marcos Tebar and Xisco Hernandez offering the necessary creative spark.
Shifting base to a state with a rich footballing culture and history, new entrants Hyderbad FC have a squad with a good blend of youth and experience. Replacing the now-defunct FC Pune City after the club shut down due to financial issues, the club has retained key players such as Marko Stankovic, Nikhil Poojary, Robin Singh, Marko Stankovic and Adil Khan. Furthermore, the additions of Nestor Gordillo, Bobo Giles Barnes, Rafael Lopez Gomez, Matthew Kilgallon, Laldanmawia Ralte come as a huge boost for the club.
After a wobbly start to the 2018-’19 season, FC Pune City sacked coach Miguel Angel Portugal. Brown took charge midway during the season and brought about a revival, where the club lost only one out of six games under the Englishman – drawing two and winning three.
If Brown can carry on from where he left last season, Hyderabad FC have the firepower to fight for the title.
Entering their third season of the ISL, Jamshedpur FC will hope the appointment of Antonio Iriondo will fetch them immediate results, having sacked two managers in the last two seasons.
Piti, Sergio Castel, Aitor Monroy, Noe Acosta, Keegan Pereira and CK Vineeth are some of the names that have been signed in the summer but compared to other squads, they are relatively weak.
They have a total of six overseas players with only centre-back Tiri and midfielder Memo Moura being retained. Though they have acquired some promising Indian youngsters such as Aniket Jadhav, Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Jitendra Singh and Narender Gehlot and all will be making their debut this year in the ISL.
Iriondo comes with a managerial experience of more than 25 years but reputation matters little with big names such as Steve Coppell and former Atletico manager Cesar Ferrando having struggled to deliver results in the past.
At a glance
Total matches so far: 373
Total goals so far: 956
Top scoring team so far: FC Goa (154)
588 players of 67 different nationalities, including India, have played in the ISL so far.