Super talents on display in India's biggest football league
ATK emerged champions of the ISL last season, while Mohun Bagan clinched the last I-League before the two merged to form a new entity in the ISL. ATK have been the most successful side in the history of the league as they have already clinched the title thrice.
ATK-Mohun Bagan will surely be the new powerhouse under the successful Spanish coach Antonio Lopez Habas. Their fan base will be something to envy for all other clubs in the tournament, with the millions of green-and-maroon fans joining hands with the ATK loyals.
ATKMB would like to continue their attractive brand of attacking football as they have a brilliant mix of foreign talents and domestic core.
Strong defence is key for a successful side and the Calcutta giants have arguably the best defence in the tournament. Since they have roped in Sandesh Jhingan, they can field an all-Indian defence with Pritam Kotal, Prabir Das and Sumit Rathi in the squad. The Mariners have a reliable midfield with some quality foreigners such as Javi Hernandez, Edu Garcia and Brad Inman. They can completely trust the pair of Roy Krishna and David Williams for scoring goals as they were in phenomenal form last season. Young India international Manvir Singh is also a good option up front.
Sandesh Jhingan: The talismanic defender is the most important addition to the ATKMB squad. He has the ability to lead from the front and make the defence impenetrable. The 27-year-old is a perfect example of what ISL is meant for — unearthing special talents. He caught everyone’s eye after getting an opportunity to play for Kerala Blasters in 2014 and now he is arguably the best defender in Indian football.
The red-and-gold brigade will make their ISL debut with the Calcutta Derby. They will renew their century-old rivalry with ATK-Mohun Bagan on a new stage. The cash-rich league will experience the big battle for the first time. If East Bengal can overcome ATKMB, they will start the campaign with a bang. They would also like to make up for their title drought in the I-League by winning the ISL. But it would be an uphill task. Coach Robbie Fowler has arrived just a few weeks ago and finding the right combination in such a short span of time might be a big challenge for the former Liverpool great.
However, East Bengal have built a team to be reckoned with. They have signed some extraordinary overseas players such as Anthony Pilkington, Daniel Fox and Jacques Maghoma. Indian players like C.K. Vineeth, Balwant Rai and Jeje Lalpekhlua only added to the depth of the squad.
Anthony Pilkington: The Irish international is one of the biggest foreign recruits this season. The 32-year-old winger had previously scored 14 goals and made 5 assists in 75 Premier League appearances for Norwich City. He also played for renowned English clubs Cardiff City and Wigan Athletic. He is very good in the box and can score goals with both feet.
They have always been a team to beat since their ISL debut in 2017. Bengaluru FC finished runner-up in the very first season and claimed the trophy next year. In 2019, they couldn’t go beyond the play-offs but Sunil Chhetri’s boys can come back stronger this time.
They have some quality India players such as Ashique Kuruniyan, Udanta Singh and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu besides skipper Chhetri, who have been the backbone of the team. Their defence seems to be strong with the likes of Juanan and newly signed Fran Gonzalez. Gonzalez played a key role in Mohun Bagan’s I-League triumph last season, while Juanan helped Bengaluru FC concede just 13 goals in the ISL last season. Erik Paartalu’s versatility will also allow coach Carles Cuadrat use the Spaniard either as holding midfielder or as the centre back.
The addition of Brazilian Cleiton Silva and Norwegian Kristian Opseth will bolster the attack, led by Chhetri. Since the Bengaluru side depends heavily on their attackers, they have to take in a couple of experienced midfielders who would be able to plug the holes in the midfield and keep sending through balls to the forwards.
Cleiton Silva: The Brazilian forward is a goal machine. He became the first overseas player to score 100 goals in the Thai league. He can play both as a winger and a striker. Silva’s dribbling skill and pace can trouble the opposition defence. He can be the remedy for BFC’s goal drought that hurt them last season.
The two-time champions always put up an impressive show in the league and are known for their never-say-die attitude. The way they finished as runner-up last season from the bottom of the table, it spoke a lot about their character. They have a young and balanced side that comprises some exciting Indian talents and a few relatively unknown foreign recruits. The Marina Machans have bought Jakub Sylvestr and Enes Sipvoic to add depth to the squad. They have kept their core team comprising Anirudh Thapa, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Thoi Singh and Jerry Lalrinzuala intact.
The Super Machans don’t have to bother about scoring goals as they always possess quality forwards and a good midfield. Inclusion of star midfielder Rafael Crivellaro last season only strengthened their attack but they have to find a solution to their defence woes. They have been conceding too many goals of late. The ISL veteran Eli Sabia has to lead the defence from the front.
Anirudh Thapa: Anirudh has been an integral part of the Blues since 2016. Though he just played one match in the debut season, the 22-year-old central midfielder cemented his place in the starting XI next year. He is undoubtedly one of the best emerging players in Indian football. He has a great right foot and ability to score goals from set-pieces. Anirudh always helps the team create scoring opportunities with his brilliant passing and quick movements.
The Goan side has been putting up a consistent performance for the last two seasons. They won the Indian Super Cup in 2019 and claimed the first ever ISL League Winners Shield last season. But the ISL championship still eludes them though they reached the finals twice. The squad has undergone a revamp this season as the former coach Sergio Lobera and many key players have left the club. However, the new manager Juan Ferrando also has a good side at his disposal. The Gaurs have a nice blend of youth and experience. They have some really talented youngsters such as Ishan Pandita, Redeem Tlang and Jorge Ortiz besides the experienced players like Igor Angulo and Ivan Gonzalez. Ferrando would now have to find the winning combination and ensure his boys don’t slip in big matches.
Igor Angulo: The 36-year-old Spanish forward has nothing to prove. He had played for Athletic Bilbao in La Liga and then went on to play for several clubs in Greece and Poland. Igor helped the Polish club Gornik Zabrze qualify for the first qualifying round of Uefa Europa League after a gap of 23 years in 2018-19 season and he was the top scorer for the club. Ferrando will surely build his strategies around him to win big matches.
The Blasters are undoubtedly one of the most popular teams in the league with a huge fan base. They possess a strong yet unpredictable side. The Men in Yellow had a forgettable season last year as they finished seventh. However, they might make a strong comeback this time under I-League winning coach Kibu Vicuna. The former Mohun Bagan coach has formed a balanced squad comprising young Indian players and experienced foreigners. The Kerala side has roped in youngsters such as Rahul KP, Jeakson Singh and Nongdamba Naorem who can be the mainstays for the club. They have a goal machine in Gary Hooper and to give him proper assistance, there is Sahal Abdul Samad who knows well how to create chances. On paper, Vicuna’s boys look at par with any other team in the competition. Now they have to deliver when it matters the most.
Gary Hooper: The Yellow Army will rely heavily on Hooper for goals as they don’t have any other forward of that quality. The former Celtic and Norwich City forward is dangerous in the box and known for his one-touch finishes. The Englishman has to take a lot of responsibility if Vicuna goes with a lone striker. He is capable of playing the role that Iain Hume successfully played for the Blasters.
They are perennial underachievers. They made it to the play-offs only twice in six seasons. Despite having some quality players, Mumbai mostly had mid-table finishes. With the change in ownership, the team had a complete overhaul this year. They brought in Sergio Lobera as their new coach, who tasted success with FC Goa in the last two seasons. With Lobera, the core players of the Goan side such as Hugo Boumous, Mandar Rao Dessai and Mourtada Fall also joined Mumbai City FC. The islanders also signed a couple of star strikers in Adam le Fondre and Bartholomew Ogbeche. They seem to be one of the most balanced sides in the league this season. All they now have to do is to play to their potential.
Bartholomew Ogbeche: The Nigerian forward is an ISL veteran. He can demolish any defence single-handedly on his day. He played for NorthEast United in 2018-19 season and Kerala Blasters the following season. He scored 27 goals and made 2 assists in 34 ISL appearances for the two clubs. He can surely be a game changer for Mumbai.
They started off their ISL journey on a promising note in 2017 as they had finished fifth, but the Steel City boys couldn’t live up to the expectation last season as they ended at the eighth spot. This time they made a few changes to the side to make it more balanced. They bought young winger Jackichand Singh from FC Goa and Lithuanian striker Nerijus Valskis from Chennaiyin FC to put an end to their goal drought. The Jamshedpur side scored just 22 goals in 18 games last season. They need to score more goals to stand a chance of winning against heavyweight teams and secure a berth in playoffs. They also need to plug the holes in their defence as they conceded too many goals last time. The arrival of British defender Peter Hartley might solve the problem.
Nerijus Valskis: Valskis was at his best during his stint with Chennaiyin FC last season when he scored 15 goals and made 6 assists in 20 games. The Golden Boot winner would like to continue his superb form this season too and help the Men of Steel make it to the playoffs under new coach Owen Coyle.
The Highlanders are yet to taste success in the league as they have reached the play-offs only once till date. They have rebuilt the team this time to end their poor run. They have put together a strong team under the guidance of academy head Khalid Jamil, who had won the I-League with Aizwal FC and was interim coach for the Highlanders early this year. They have appointed young Spaniard Gerurd Nus as the head coach. Signing two foreigners — Idrissa Sylla and Kwesi Appiah — might end their goal-scoring problem. However, they also need to strengthen their defence as they conceded as many as 30 goals last season.
Federico Gallego: The Uruguayan has been the backbone of NorthEast United for the last two seasons. Thanks to Gallego, NEUFC could reach the play-offs for the first time in the 2018-19 season. He can create opportunities and score goals as well. The Highlanders would like to see him at his best to better their record in the league.
They made their ISL debut last year but they have a team capable of a mid-table finish. They boast of veteran goalie Subrata Pal and the experienced winger Halicharan Narzary. They have some good overseas players in Spanish central defender Odei Onaindia, Brazilian holding midfielder Joao Victor and the Spanish striker duo of Aridane Santana and Francisco Sandaza. It’s to be seen whether the new coach Manuel Marquez can turn the Hyderabad boys into giant killers.
Francisco Sandaza: The Spanish centre forward will surely bolster the Goa attack. His partnership with Aridane Santana might be a cause of concern for the opposition defence. Sandaza had played for Scottish club Dundee United and English club Brighton and Hove Albion in the early days of his career. Later he played for several clubs including Spanish club Girona where he had the best days of his career and helped them earn a place in La Liga.
Like the Hyderabad side, they made their entry last season and would look to upset all the odds. They made two major signings this season — Steven Taylor and Jacob Tratt — to strengthen their defence. The Juggernauts have roped in a host of youngsters such as Kamalpreet Singh, Hendry Antonay and Saurabh Meher and experienced foreigners such as Marcelinho, Manuel Onwu and Taylor. They can be termed as a dark horse in the tournament.
Marcelinho: He is a proven hero in the ISL. He was key to many victories of Delhi Dynamos, Pune City and Hyderabad FC previously. The Brazilian left winger is an expert in set-pieces. His ability to create scoring opportunities will be useful for Stuart Baxter’s side. He has 31 goals and 17 assists in his name in 63 ISL appearances. Marcelinho can be a big inspiration for the young Odisha side.