With its fate finally sealed after the Asian Football Confederation promoted the Indian Super League as the premier football division in the new roadmap for Indian football, the I-League marks a return with its 13th edition taking place on Saturday.
The excitement and buzz surrounding the league may have died down a bit, players who lit up the league last year have left for lucrative ISL contracts but despite losing its sheen, what separates the I-League from their counterparts has been the rich history and unpredictability in the title race.
A total of 110 games are scheduled to be played across five months and 17 weeks in the upcoming season, with the winners grabbing an automatic spot in the AFC Cup.
Since the past few years, the I-League has forged itself as a league of the underdogs. From Aizawl FC’s fairytale title triumph in 2017-’18 to Chennai City’s thrilling final-day finish last season, the league has witnessed several climax and thrills.
It has no longer been only about top dogs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal with others also punching above their weight.
The I-League has had a total of eight winners since its inception back in the 2007-’08 season. Five different clubs have won it in the past five years, making for a many-a-memorable fairytale.
Could we see a new team take the title this year?
Mohun Bagan have been one of the most consistent sides in the league since their title triumph in the 2014-’15 season, finishing at least in top three in four out of five seasons. But they’ve also changed five managers in as many years with Spaniard Kibu Vicuna the latest arrival.
After spending big in the summer, Bagan have revamped their squad but are touted to be the favourites despite letting go of talisman Sony Norde. Kibuna has already managed to hit the ground running, leading the club to the final of the 2019 Durand Cup in the summer apart from missing out on the Calcutta League Cup by a narrow margin.
Gokulam Kerala will also be in contention for the title this year with new coach Santiago Varela taking over from Bino George. Like Bagan, they too have been very active in the summer transfer window with eye-catching signings such as Henry Kisseka, Trinidad and Tobago International Marcus Joseph and former Dempo defender Zohib Islam Amiri.
Varela has already managed to leave a healthy first impression in a short time, leading the club to the Durand Cup title and a semi-final finish in the Sheikh Kamal International Cup.
After battling relegation the previous season, Chennai City bounced back in style to clinch the title during the 2018-’19 season where arguably they were the best entertaining side in the league, scoring the most goals.
The title defence though will be a challenge given that a major chunk of Indian players have departed from last season. However, the Coimbatore-based club have their core of Spanish trio Pedro Manzi, Sandro Rodriguez and Roberto Eslava still intact along with coach Akbar Nawas, who enters his second season. Add to that the inclusion of Katsumi Yusa, which makes the defending champions one of the finest attacking sides.
Having finished runners-up last year, East Bengal will also aim to challenge for the trophy with Alejandro Mendez still around. Their situation is the same as Chennai City, having lost the likes of Laldanmawia Ralte, Jobby Justin and a few other key stars.
Making their debut in the I-League last season, David Robertson’s Real Kashmir gave a good account themselves by finishing third in the league on a tight budget. They won both their ties against champions Chennai City apart from taking off points from heavyweights Bagan and East Bengal.
The new entrants were also the meanest defence in the league last year, conceding 14 goals all season - the fewest in the league while suffering only three defeats, the lowest alongside Chennai City.
Neroca FC boasted one of the worst defensive records in the season, shipping in 27 goals alongside Mohun Bagan and Aizawl FC, finishing sixth. Off the pitch, things haven’t gone smoothly for the Manipur-based club either. There was speculation whether the club would shut down in the summer owing to financial constraints.
They had announced former India midfielder Renedy Singh as their head coach earlier this year but he parted ways, making way for Gift Raikhan. They have also lost their three potent goalscorers this season - Chencho Gyletshen, Yusa and Felix Chidi (top scorer for the club in the past three seasons). Only time can answer how they will fare after wholesome changes to the squad.