From Pena to play-off berths, new ISL season has number of changes

Another season of the Indian Super League (ISL) starts on Friday with a string of firsts: a stadium shared, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal playing at home, under-23 players mandatory in matchday squads, six teams in the mix for play-off berths and a full-time coach who was a player in the competition.

ISL reverting to the home-and-away format after two seasons due to Covid-19 means ATK Mohun Bagan (ATKMB) and East Bengal will call the Salt Lake stadium home. From play-off berths, having league winners and another final, ISL has drawn a lot from A-League which also begins on Friday. Sharing a stadium – three teams will be doing that in Melbourne this term – will get added to that list in 2022-23.

An amphitheatre buzzing and heaving with fans would be as far a shift from the sanitised bio-bubbles as Kolkata is from Goa. How ATKMB and East Bengal react to that could influence where they finish. East Bengal start on Friday; the first step in coach Stephen Constantine’s quest for 35 points will be taken in Kochi against last season’s runners-up Kerala Blasters. Constantine’s target is seven more than their aggregate in ISL but as he said in the interview to, he is not prone to making rash predictions.

It’s been over two months since Constantine had his first session hours after reaching Kolkata and in his words, they have a good group which, by the time he leaves, should take East Bengal “to a better place than when I came.” Given that East Bengal finished last in 2021-22, the former India head coach isn’t setting the bar high but they look more solid than in their first two attempts of trying. Cleiton Silva, VP Suhair are attackers who have proved their mettle in ISL as has central defender Ivan Gonzalez and goalkeeper Kamaljeet Singh who triggered a release clause and moved from Odisha FC.

East Bengal kept faith in foreigners with ISL experience – and named two of them in the five listed for captaincy duty–as have defending champions Hyderabad FC, league shield winners Jamshedpur FC and Mumbai City. Bengaluru FC, Kerala Blasters and ATKMB signed three new foreign players, among them Paul Pogba’s brother Florentin, but FC Goa, Chennaiyin FC, Odisha FC and NorthEast United decided their rebuilding would be done through imports most of whom are coming to India for the first time.

In keeping with this trend of change, seven of the 11 teams have new coaches this term including FC Goa who have signed former player Carlos Pena. Three of the four who don’t made the semi-finals last term. Bengaluru FC are among those who have changed coaches and former Premier League defender Simon Grayson began his assignment by winning the Durand Cup. It filled a hole in Sunil Chhetri’s trophy-laden cabinet and gave Roy Krishna his second title in India after the ISL with ATK. Should Juan Ferrando not get ATKMB off to a good start, every goal Krishna scores−he had three in the Durand Cup− could add to uncertainty over his future.

That first six teams will be eligible for play-off berths gives everyone a little more to play for. Increasing the age of development players to under-23 too was practical because Covid-19 had stalled youth leagues for over two years. Each team must have five development players in the roster with two mandatory in the matchday squad of 20. As Constantine has said, the focus should be on developing Indian players. Headlining them would be Bengaluru FC’s 21-yar-old Sivasakthi Narayan who scored five goals in the Durand Cup including one in the final. That was how many Bartholomew Ogbeche, who won the ISL Golden Boot with 18 strikes last term, got. Mumbai City FC teammates Greg Stewart, who won the Golden Ball with Jamshedpur FC in 2021-22, and Lallianzuala Chhangte were joint-scorers in the Durand Cup with seven goals each.

The changed Asian calendar, which transitions from spring-autumn to autumn-spring to align with Europe, means there is no clarity on how tournament spots would be decided in ISL9. The 2023-24 Asian Champions League and AFC Cup will start in August which means two editions of ISL would have been completed since Mumbai City FC and ATKMB played in the Champions League and AFC Cup respectively in 2022.

“Anybody can beat anybody in this league. Nobody expected Kerala Blasters to reach the final after such a long dry spell. In ISL anything is possible. This year will be the same though many things will be different,” said Ivan Vukomanovic, the first coach to be retained by Kerala Blasters, on Thursday.

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