New consortiums in ownership and altered combinations in the team formations lend the third season of the Indian Super League a novel touch. Much like the shake-up in the ownership, which was seen in a good number of franchises ahead of the new season, the teams also rebooted their rolls and rosters forcing a migration of many names.
A champion generally looks to preserve the winning combination, but the holder, Chennaiyin FC, is left forlorn without the most potent attacking combination of the tournament so far. The Chennai side will have to go without the most prolific striker of the tournament, Colombian Stiven Mendoza, putting extra pressure on its high profile manager Marco Materazzi to rethink his attacking options.
Compounding the situation for the holder will be the absence of the Brazilian playmaker Elano Blumer, who has decided not to return apparently embittered by his arrest by the Goa police after a bitter final last year.
Norwegian defender John Arne Riise becomes the new marquee player around whom Materazzi is spinning hopes to defend the title. However, Hans Mulder and El Sabia make the defence even stronger alongside the indomitable Frenchman Bernard Mendy. What will be a challenge for Materazzi is ensuring the efficiency in attack with the likes of Brazilian Raphael Augusto, Nigerian Dudu Omagbemi and the Indian striker Jeje Lalpekhlua.
The arrival of Diego Forlan, the Uruguayan striker who became a star of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, for Mumbai City FC will shift the focus to a region that has not been able to express its proficiency in the past two seasons of the tournament. Mumbai and Pune, the two Western cousins, are two of the three sides — the other one being NorthEast United FC — failing to make the semifinals so far.
Forlan, whose name was initially linked with the first season’s winner, Atletico Kolkata, was a prized catch for the Mumbai franchise desperately looking to turn its fortunes around. As the Marquee player, Forlan will be at the centre of Mumbai’s aspirations. He will also be drawing much of the interest, being one of the most prolific strikers in recent times.
The Mumbai outfit, under former Costa Rican national team coach Alexandre Guimaraes, will be hoping to turn things around with the Indian captain Sunil Chhetri and Haitian Sony Norde joining forces with Forlan in the attack. There are also the likes of Jakichand Singh, Pronoy Halder, Kuman Undanta Singh and Boithang Haokip in the park to give solidity to Mumbai City FC’s plans.
Again, Chhetri and Norde may not be available, as the two have their club (Bengaluru FC) and National duties to fulfil, limiting Guimaraes’ options in the attack. With the I-League champion Bengaluru FC reaching the semifinals of the AFC Cup, many of the ISL outfits will be impacted in the initial rounds as they have to do without Indian recruits contracted with the Bengaluru team.
Antonio Habas, the Spaniard who made Atletico de Kolkata the champion in the inaugural season, now has the job of taking FC Pune City past the league stage. Interestingly, the coaching rivalries this season are likely to be more intense with a lot of former players taking up the role of a gaffer. Among the characters likely to make verbal duels interesting is the legendary Brazilian Zico, who is into the third season with FC Goa. With the former Italian defender Gianluca Zambrotta joining Delhi Dynamos, Materazzi will have his former teammate in the opposition dugout raising the intensity of the contest.
Pune City has made an interesting selection with the iconic Icelander Eidur Gudjohnsen joining the side as the marquee player. But Gudjohnsen has now been ruled out with an ankle injury. The team also has the Cameroon-born Armenian Edel Bete in goal. Bete has had the good fortune of lifting the title in both the seasons (successively for ATK and Chennaiyin). The team also boasts of another Cameroonian Andre Bikey, who will lending solidity to the team’s defence, while Argentine Gustavo Oberman is a prominent name in the attack.
FC Goa and the nonpareil Zico make a great combination, but the association has so far failed to bear fruit. The Goa outfit had the trophy in its grasp in a riveting final last year, but Mendoza’s brilliance at the death turned the tide towards Chennaiyin. What followed after this decision was one of the most virulent incidents in Indian football history and saw the exit of two of the most notable patrons of the game, Shrinivas Dempo and Dattaraj Salgaocar. This saved FC Goa from sanctions and a ban giving a footballing lifeline to one of the most accomplished sides in the tournament.
Zico and Lucio, the celebrated Brazilian defender and the Goa marquee, will be looking to preserve the form that makes Goa one of the foremost claimants to the title. Spaniard Joffre Mateu, Brazilian Reinaldo Oliviera and the mercurial Frenchman Gregory Arnolin alongside the Indians Robin Singh and Debabrata Roy give the Goa attack sharpness.
Much like Goa, Atletico de Kolkata has also opted for preservation, retaining the core of its international cast. Helder Postiga, the highly rated Portuguese striker, is back in the fold claiming complete fitness. Postiga played just one match in the previous season, but his two goals against Chennaiyin before he was stretchered off was enough to convince the team management about the 34-year-old World Cupper’s class. Postiga joins Canadian Iain Hume and with the two Spaniards Javi Lara and Juan Belencoso closing ranks with the likes of Borja Fernandes and South African Sameehg Doutie, ATK’s new Spanish coach and former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Francisco Molina will have a lot to choose from.
NorthEast United FC, which commands one of the biggest fan bases representing the most passionate football region of the country, will be trying to make it third time lucky under the highly experienced Portuguese coach Nelo Vingada.
Having the Ivory Coast and the Tottenham Hotspur player Didier Zokora as the new marquee of the side, NEUFC will be taking heart from the fact that the franchise hosting the inaugural ceremony has won the title in the previous two seasons. The team has a good mix of players from the North East making the Indian selection quite strong.
Kerala Blasters, under the respected English coach Steve Coppell, will be hoping to get back into the fold after a forgettable season last year. The Irish and the former Newcastle United and Aston Villa defender, Aaron Hughes, is the marquee player around whom the team is looking to revive its fortunes. Englishman Antonio German is the big name in the attack in a side that is looking to find the right balance between the international and the Indian players.
Overall, the teams will be looking to put to use the learning and experience of the previous seasons and this will make the third edition of the ISL an interesting spectacle.
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