The Indian Super League returns to the pitch and our television screens on November 19th. Here's all you need to know!
Are they all still in a bio-bubble?
Absolutely. The same strict protocols as set last year -- three grounds (Fatorda, Tilak Maidan, Bambolim), one state (Goa), eleven teams.
Is there anything we should watch out for?
A version of the the 3+1 rule.
The AIFF and FSDL have decided to adopt the AFC-compliant 4 overseas players per eleven rule (without the mandatory AFC-region player component). It's just one less than what it was last season, but it will have a big effect on how teams set up - an advantage for those who trust Indian players to be the spine of their side, a major setback for those who don't.
Onto the teams. How are the defending champs looking?
It's hard to say.
Last season Sergio Lobera Sergio-Lobera-d his way to the double, winning the league stage and the playoffs. They scored the most goals, conceded the second fewest -- they were equal parts fun and effective. This time around, Lobera has been moved up the City Football Group chain of command, reportedly as promised to him, and in his stead comes Des Buckingham. Assistant coach at another double winning CFG entity last season (Melbourne City), the 36-year-old comes with a lot of hype. He has quite the job to live up to -- the league's best player (when he's in the mood), Hugo Boumous, has moved to ATK Mohun Bagan, as has their captain and goalkeeper, Amrinder Singh. Both of last season's strikers, Bart Ogbeche and Adam Le Fondre, have left. As has Hernan Santana, the foundation of Lobera's build-from-the-back philosophy.
They do have had some interesting additions, though. Igor Angulo, frozen out by FC Goa for their AFC Champions League campaign last season, will lead the line. The striker, a year older than his head coach, will have plenty to prove. As will another player frozen out by Goa, goalkeeper Mohammed Nawaz. Rahul Bheke comes in on the back of a pretty shambolic season while Apuia (Lalengmawia) comes in on the back of a pretty sensational one. With Buckingham keen to impress in his first fully-fledged head coach stint as well, it should make for a fun season.
Wasn't there some drama with the Kolkata giants?
Of course there was.
Shree Cements and the East Bengal board spent most of the summer at loggerheads before the one voice that could unite them in time spoke up. This meant another long delay before they could even start picking a squad and more wholesale changes. Robbie Fowler is gone, and with him, his colourful post-match quotes, as former Real Madrid B coach Jose Manuel Diaz replaces him. Their squad has a slightly healthier look to it this season with the experience of Arindam Bhattacharya, Adil Khan, Jackichand Singh and Bikash Jairu. The most exciting youngster they've brought in is Amarjit Singh while Romeo Fernandes' potential comeback has heart-string-tugging potential. Oh, and watch out for new Nigerian striker Daniel Chima.
On the other side of the maidan, Mohun Bagan fans have been screaming for the removal of ATK from their club's name and badge but nothing's really changed. That stays true for the playing squad as well.
The team has that distinctive Antonio Habas feel to it -- quality through the squad, a consistent core and a couple of exciting newcomers. The additions of Amrinder and Boumous along with the livewire that is Liston Colaco make them strong favourites this season. That the loss of Sandesh Jhingan to the Croatian league (where he is yet to play a minute after suffering an early injury) doesn't affect their odds is a testament to Habas' defensive nous.
There's an Indian head coach this season?
YES! And the all-caps is intentional.
Khalid Jamil is the ISL's first proper Indian head coach and he will be looking to repeat last season's heroics when NorthEast United marauded their way from the bottom half to the playoffs. Jamil's USP has always been getting the most of young, unproven Indian players and it'll be put to the test once again. Hernan Santana's signing shows intent, while the spine of the squad has been retained, more or less. Federico Gallego will remain key but the fate of the season could very well hinge on how Jamil manages to replace Apuia in the heart of midfield.
How are the old Kings looking?
Ah, Chennaiyin and Bengaluru.
Chennaiyin were fun to watch last season, doing a whole lot of things right except the one that matters most... putting the ball in the back of the net. They scored just 17 in 20 games, a statistic that saw coach Cszabo Laslo moved out. In comes Bozidar Bandovic and with him a whole new posse of foreigners (except Rafael Crivallero, who stays). There are no big names but Bandovic will lean on a strong Indian core, led by new captain Anirudh Thapa and the exciting Lallianzuala Chhangte. Oh, and there's the return from injury of Jobby Justin to look forward to.
Bengaluru may have finished a place above Chennaiyin last season, but they were pretty dismal all through. That saw the mid-season sack of long-time coach Carles Cuadrat and wholesale changes in their squad. They've retained only one foreigner (Cleiton Silva) and have introduced a raft of youth squad players including the very exciting attacking duo of Leon Augustine (who already played a bit last season) and Sivasakthi Narayanan. The player to look out for, though, will be Bidyashagar Singh -- he became just the fourth Indian to finish as top scorer in a national league after his 12 goals saw him win the 2020-21 I-League golden boot. New coach Marco Pezzaiouli, a graduate of the Ralf Rangnick gegenpressing school, has promised high-tempo, attack-first football and that's something to look forward to.
Wasn't David Villa involved somewhere?
Ah, yes. As a sporting consultant for Odisha FC. The team that finished bottom of the league have bolstered their squad with former ATK stalwarts Victor Mongil and Javi Hernandez. There is, though, a familiar underwhelming feel to the squad. New coach Kiko Ramirez has his work cut out to prove the high-profile signing of DV7 (Villa's management firm) was worth all the hype.
A team with a proper pre-season? No way!
Yes way! FC Goa rocked up to the Durand Cup with their first team, seeing it as a chance to have a proper pre-season for once, but also a chance to win a proper trophy. They complained about the conditions (rightly so, to be fair) but they also showed that those are obstacles to be overcome. It was the kind of character-building and team-bonding exercise HR professionals the world over dream about.
The squad is near-identical to the one that got to the playoffs last season, with Juan Ferrando replacing James Donachie with Dylan Fox (who was impressive with NorthEast last year), and Angulo with another Spanish forward, Airam Cabrera. It's the young Indian contingent -- who were brilliant in the Durand Cup -- that makes this team truly exciting, though. Watch out for Muhammed Nemil and Devendra Murgaonkar. Ferrando's men are proper contenders.
How's the Coyle revolution coming along?
A spate of injuries meant Owen Coyle's Jamshedpur revolution never really took off but he has retained the core of his squad and will be looking to have a go off a clean slate once again. Eli Sabia has joined from Chennaiyin as has Jordan Murray from Kerala Blasters. The two most intriguing signings, though, are Komal Thatal and Ishan Pandita. Thatal's career stalled after a fun U17 World Cup and he's struggled to get minutes with a senior club side. Pandita, meanwhile, joins a whole host of ex-Goa players who have a thing or two to prove this season.
What about the men in yellow?
They were on opposite ends of the fun-spectrum last season. Hyderabad FC were as entertaining as Kerala Blasters were clownish.
The former may have lost Liston Colaco but have brought in Juanan at the back and the goal-scoring machine that is Bart Ogbeche up front. Add to that the brilliance of coach Manuel Marquez and you'd be writing them off (like yours truly did last season) at your own peril.
Meanwhile, it's a new season at Kerala Blasters, which can only mean one thing. A new coach. This time it's Ivan Vukomanovic and one of the first things he did was overhaul the defence -- he really had to. The change is led by former Chennaiyin centre back Enes Sipovic, while up front Adrian Luna, Jorge Pereyra and Chencho Gyelthsen are high-profile foreign additions. Their most exciting player, though, is a local lad... Rahul KP. How the manjappada would love it if he seized the moment.