A sea of yellow is expected to throng the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi on Friday for the first time in 957 days when the new season of the Indian Super League (ISL) kicks off with Kerala Blasters taking on East Bengal.
It’s the ninth installment of the competition, which needs a much-needed facelift after two seasons behind closed doors in Goa.
This season, ISL will return to the home and away format, with fans back in full capacity, for the first time in two years since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. There will still be no relegation, but the number of teams in the playoffs has increased from four to six.
Nita Ambani, the FSDL chairperson, welcoming the fans, said, “We are delighted to have them in the stands cheering for their teams again. With an extended football calendar, there is tremendous excitement and anticipation for the upcoming ISL season.”
"Over the last few years, despite the challenges of the pandemic, ISL provided a solid platform for young talent and digital engagement to fans. I am sure this year will see the emergence of many more domestic players and top-quality football,” she added.
Owen Coyle, Jamshedpur FC’s Shield-winning manager from last season, will not return for a fourth stint in India. The Scotsman has returned home to take over at Queen’s Park in the second tier. Seven of the 11 clubs have refreshed their coaching personnel this year. Former Watford and England youth team coach Aidy Boothroyd has replaced Coyle.
Kerala Blasters enjoyed one of its best seasons last year but lost two key attackers Alvaro Vasquez (moved to Goa) and Pereyra (moved to Mumbai City). But it managed to sign head coach Ivan Vukomanovic and creative midfielder Adrian Luna on long-term contracts. Local boy Sahal Abdul Samad showed he could live up to the expectations, and the onus will be on him to lead his team’s charge for a maiden ISL title.
Bengaluru FC has roped in Simon Grayson to help reverse the club’s fortunes. The move paid off as the Englishman led the team to Durand Cup success last month. German Thomas Bradric (Chennaiyin FC) and Israeli Marco Balbul (NorthEast United FC) are the other new names.
Old faces back
Stephen Constantine, who spent nine years as Indian men’s national team coach, will be coaching in the ISL for the first time with East Bengal. Constantine will have to improve on the last-place finish from last season for the Red and Golds.
FC Goa has turned to former player Carlos Pena for coaching duty after Juan Ferrando left the club midway to join ATK Mohun Bagan. Spaniard Josep Gombau has returned to Odisha FC after two years with Queensboro FC, where he was the head coach and sporting director.
Who are the favourites?
Powerhouses Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan will again be the teams to beat and will be favourites for the title. Mumbai has signed attacking talents from rival clubs: Greg Stewart (21-22 Golden Ball winner) from Jamshedpur, Alberto Noguera from Goa and Jorge Pereyra Diaz from Kerala Blasters.
Mohun Bagan bid goodbye to long-serving forwards Roy Krishna and David Williams but is yet to adequately replace the duo. Manvir Singh, Liston Colaco and new signing Ashique Kuruniyan will be expected to step up in the goal-scoring duties and will be supported by Australian forward Dimitri Petratos and Hugo Boumous. Mohun Bagan has also signed defenders Florentin Pogba and Brandon Hamill.
Hyderabad has gone from strength to strength under Manuel Marquez Roca and won the ISL trophy in a thrilling final against Kerala last season. Mohun Bagan acquired the services of right back Asish Rai but the Nizams have kept the crux of their squad intact and will be looking to go big again.
Jamshedpur has to fill a Stewart-sized hole in its attack. Stewart finished last season with 10 goals and as many assists and was the biggest creative spark for the Red Miners. The club also lost Pranoy Halder and hasn’t made any major domestic signings to build on the success from last season. Boothroyd will do well to replicate the intensity and work rate instilled by Coyle in the last two years.
In the mix
Bengaluru has rejuvenated itself during the off-season with a new coach and has gone for established names in the transfer window. Roy Krishna, Javi Hernandez, Sandesh Jhingan and Prabir Das have arrived to back up the star quality of Sunil Chhetri, who wages on at the age of 38. There is plenty of excitement around young forward Sivasakthi Narayanan.
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FC Goa is among the traditional favourites due to its six semifinal appearances in eight seasons and a robust team structure, which includes a reserve side. Pena, a former Shield winner and club captain, is entrusted with steering the club back into the mix and prove that a ninth-placed finish last season was just an unexpected setback.
After a final appearance in 2020, Chennaiyin has largely been insipid with bottom-half finishes under two different coaches. The club bid goodbye to Rafael Crivellaro last week after the Brazilian’s ill-fate with injuries over the last two years and the two-time champion has once again refreshed its overseas contingent. With the supporters back in the stadium, Chennaiyin will hope to regain some of its old magic with skipper Anirudh Thapa holding the key.
Gombau has a proven record at Odisha of working well with Indian youngsters and getting the team to play an attractive brand of football. After letting in a combined 87 goals in the last two seasons, the club has signed Indian international Amrinder Singh in goal and defender Carlos Delgado is back in the fold to help shore up the backline.
After reaching the semifinals in 2021, NorthEast United returned to the bottom half, and its post-season activity suggested the club is drifting aimlessly. If not for the FIFA suspension being lifted days before the end of the transfer window, NEUFC would likely have started the season without any foreign players.