Indian Super League – 2020 Preview by Karthik Raj

The new season of ISL 2020-21 will begin from November 21 as 11 teams will battle it out for the trophy. Read this preview as @kartcric analyses each team and shares his thoughts on how this season is going to be in this interview article.

This year’s ISL will be starting a month later than it used to start, your thoughts on the schedule?

Yeah, this season is going to be a unique one due to the challenges posed by covid-19. However, the organisers can be credited for having the whole tournament in Goa as it will be the first big competition to be held in India after the pandemic. With respect to the schedule, it is pretty cramped because of a rather short window. Apart from the season starting a month late than usual, ISL will also want to complete the season before the next IPL begins as Star Sports broadcast both the tournaments. Because of this, we will see double headers in the ISL for the very first time but it is going to be very hard on the players. Some teams have phases where they will need to play 5 or 6 games in 17-18 days and that will force the teams to rotate a lot. So, squad depth and proper rotation will have a big impact in terms of the teams who do well this time around.

Let’s take a look at the teams starting with the latest addition to this year’s ISL, SC East Bengal.

It is a much awaited inclusion for the ISL. We could say its a pity that East Bengal had to come in during this season as we will not be able to see a packed Salt Lake Stadium for the Kolkata Derby. Their addition to the league was a really last-minute one. They got into the league after the Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee helped the club find an investor. So, this didn’t give a lot of time to prepare the squad. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that SCEB have the weakest Indian contingent. Their Indian players are mostly those who are past their prime. However, the good thing that they done is the quality of overseas signings. The Manager Robbie Fowler has gone for players with a lot of pedigree and experience like Anthony Pilkington and Jacques Maghoma. On the whole, I forsee a tough debut season where they could end up in the last three spots.

Mumbai City failed to be in the top 4 last season, what do you think they should do to qualify?

The last season was a different universe, this one is a different universe. That is how I see it for Mumbai City FC this season. With the City Group backing them, Mumbai have turned themselves into one of the favourites for this year. They went about the business quite good by bringing in Sergio Lobera who had almost coached FC Goa for a full three seasons. Lobera has become a fan favourite by now due to the way he made FC Goa play some eye-catchy attacking football. Just like Lobera has done throughout his coaching career, he has brought in players who worked with him earlier. For example, Mourtada Fall, Hugo Boumous and Ahmed Jahouh all played under Lobera at FC Goa. He has also signed a proven ISL forward in Bart Ogbeche apart from bringing in A-League star Adam Le Fondre who is one of the prime contenders for the golden boot. Mumbai have also strengthened their Indian core by recruiting Mandar Rao Dessai, Mohammad Rakip, Farukh choudhary and Vikram Partap Singh. With such talent on their side, it would be a massive surprise if they don’t win either the league shield or the ISL Trophy. The only issue that Mumbai will have their slightly iffy defense as they have gone with only one foreign center-back in Fall. Under Lobera, Goa were also an entertaining side but one which tended to concede goals. The Spanish coach will hope it is different at Mumbai City FC. Expected formation – 4-2-3-1.

Chennaiyin FC came close to lifting the trophy previous season, can they do it this time?

Honestly, we will have to wait and see what they have in offer for this season. While CFC did have a stunning 2019-20 season, the lost Owen Coyle who turned around things in such an amazing manner and also the golden boot winner Nerijus Valskis. In terms of the manager, they have got in an experienced campaigner in the form of Csaba Laszlo. They have also brought in several new overseas players like Enes Sipovic, Esmael Goncalves, Jakub Sylvestr, Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev and also Memo who played for Jamshedpur last season. The good thing for CFC is that their Indian core is intact but the jury is out in terms of the overseas picks. CFC have had mixed results in the past as they have usually gone for foreign players whom other clubs might have not approached. In the 2018-19 season, this approach didn’t work but they were stellar last season after bringing in players like Nerijus Valskis and Andre Schembri. Overall, on paper, they do have a fine side but the game is played on the pitch. Expected formation – 4-2-3-1.

ATK are a successful club in the ISL with 3 titles to their name, can they make it 4th this season?

Again, like Mumbai City, if ATK-MB don’t win either the League Shield or the ISL Trophy, the season might be considered as a failure. In fact, ATK-MB will go for both the Shield and Trophy as they have the depth and quality to do so. ISL 2019-20 itself showed how well-balanced side they are under the master tactician Antonio Lopez Habas. The scary thing is that they have strengthened further by bringing in players like Sandesh Jhingan, Subhasish Bose and Spaniard Tiri who are three of the best defenders in the ISL. With the attacking quartet of Roy Krishna, David Williams, Javi Hernandez and Edu Garcia also being retained, chances of failure seem to be pretty less. ATK-MB’s squad depth is so strong that their reserve team could be good enough to compete in the ISL. In fact, they retained one of the best defenders in ISL, John Johnson as their 8th foreigner even though ISL only allows seven foreigners to be registered. So, Johnson could sit out the whole season if there aren’t any major injuries. A strong defense, a free-scoring attacking force and a solid mid-field, ATK-MB are primed to be successful again. Expected Formation – 3-4-1-2.

In the past three years, Odisha have failed to be in the top 4, can they do it this time?

I think it is going to be tough for Odisha FC once again. However, continuing from the previous season, they do have a long-term plan even though manager Josep Gombau is not there now. The current manager Stuart Baxter is someone who is very experienced and has proven himself around the world. He will do well to bring the best out of the Indian players who are some of the youngest in the league. Even last season, the likes of Nandakumar, Jerry, Vinit Rai and Shubham Sarangi impressed in various capacities. For the 2020-21 season, Odisha FC have only added a plethora of other young players who could shape the club’s long-term future. To complement these youngsters, they also have a good mix of experienced foreigners. Apart from bringing in the ISL-proven Marcelinho back to the club, Odisha have also brought in the likes of Steven Taylor, Cole Alexander, Jacob Tratt and Diego Mauricio. Two key players in the form of Diawandou Diagne and Manu Onwu. There will be a lot of expectations especially on Manu Onwu as he slotted in seven goals from just four matches after arriving on from Bengaluru FC last season. The output from Onwu and Marcelinho will go a long way in determining Odisha’s season. However, as mentioned before, Odisha FC are looking at a long-term plan and the best they could do is to fight for a Top 4 spot. Expected Formation – 4-2-3-1.

Kerela Blasters FC have some exciting players to look for, how do you think this team will perform?

From the outside, Kerala Blasters have always looked good going to each season and it is no different this time. The issue has been that usually Kerala have not clicked as a team and they were also hamstrung by multiple injuries in the previous season. Under Kibu Vicuna who won the I-League title with Mohun Bagan last year, the promise could also actually turned into actual performances. First of all, they have signed a fantastic bunch of foreign players. Center-backs Bakary Kone and Costa, mid-fielders Vicente Gomez and Facundo Pereyra, striker Gary Hooper all have top-class pedigree and experience. They have also signed an Aussie forward in the form of Jordan Murray apart from having Sergio Cidoncha who was already on a multi-year contract. The side has always been known for local talent like Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul KP and Arjun Jayaraj. However, the biggest addition to the Indian contingent could be Nishu Kumar who was signed on a lucrative contract from Bengaluru FC. Returning from a fantastic loan stint at Mohun Bagan, Nongdamba Naorem is another quality addition. They have also tried to fix the problematic goal-keeping department by signing Prabhsukhan Gill and Albino Gomes. However, the eyes will be certainly fixed on Sahal Abdul Samad who had a poor 2019-20 season and Rahul KP who could have a break-through campaign this time around. It remains to be seen whether Kerala can convert the potential but they do possess a lot of it. Ahead of the season, Kerala definitely look like one of the top contenders for the semi-finals. Expected Formation- 4-3-2-1.

Jamshedpur FC, do you think this team has what it takes to lift the trophy?

Jamshedpur FC are certainly not one of the favourites for this season but they can be expected to perform well. After finishing the 2019-20 season at the eighth position, Jamshedpur FC almost go in with a clean slate while having retained a lot of the promising Indian players. First they brought in Owen Coyle who worked like a charm for the 2019-20 season runners-up Chennaiyin FC. Coyle took the bottom-placed side right to the final while playing attractive football at the same time. After joining the ‘Red Miners’, the Scottish manager also brought golden boot winner Nerijus Valskis and Laldinliana Renthlei to Jamshedpur. Jamshedpur also made fantastic aquisitions in the form of Jackichand Singh and Ricky Lallawmawma. In terms of foreign signings, Jamshedpur opted for experience in the likes of Peter Hartley, Stephen Eze and Alex Lima who all come with very good reputations. They also have the Spanish duo of Aitor Monroy and David Grande still in the side while Aussie Nick Fitzgerald will fill the Asian spot. Looking at the names on their roster, Owen Coyle certainly has the personnel to play his exciting brand of football and find success once again. The promising Indian youngsters like Amarjit Singh, Aniket Jadhav and Narendar Gahlot also provide good signs of what one can expect from this balanced side. Like a few other sides, goal-keeping might be the major issue as the likes of TP Rehenesh and Pawan Kumar haven’t established themselves as reliable options. However, Jamshedpur do look for a good season as mentioned above. They can perhaps added to the category of teams like Kerala Blasters and Chennaiyin FC who will challenge hard for a play-off spot. Expected Formation – 4-2-3-1.

Hyderabad FC were massive disappointment in the previous season, what is your take on this team for this season?

A somewhat entity, it remains to be seen how they go this season. However, it can’t get any worse than the previous season and Hyderabad FC have tried their best to change the fortunes. It was during the middle of the previous season that they acquired the popular Albert Roca as their new manager. Although Roca had agreed only to get onto the pitch for the new season, there was a great air of expectation around him and Hyderabad FC. However, FC Barcelona threw a spanner onto their works as they signed Roca as their fitness coach when there were just a few months for the new ISL season to begin. After Albert Roca’s departure, Hyderabad get Manuel Marquez Roca but it remains to be seen how good the new Roca is. In terms of new signings, Hyderabad went about their business quite well by signing both experienced and young Indian players like Subrata Pal, Souvik Chakrabarti, Halicharan Narzary, Rohit Danu and Akash Mishra. The southern side also made a clever buy in the form of Spanish striker Aridane Santana who impressed for Odisha FC in the last season. Although losing the mercurial Marcelinho might be seen as a loss, Hyderabad got some decent foreign signings in the form of Joao Victor, Lluis Sastre, Franscisco Sandaza and Joel Chianese to shore up the mid-field and attacking third. While the problematic goal-keeping puzzle has been solved to an extent by signing Subrata Pal, concerns still hover around the team’s defense as they have opted to go in with just six foreigners. An injury to either Adil Khan or Spanish defender Odei Onaindia could really make their season longer than it is. We will also have to wait and see whether the other foreigners click as Hyderabad seemed to be a team in disarray in the previous season. Even if everything goes well, the maximum Hyderabad might achieve will be a Top four spot. Expected Formation – 4-4-2.

Like Hyderabad FC, Northeast United also had a poor season, what can they do to change it around this time?

The perennial under-dogs of the ISL – this is how Northeast United FC can be labelled as. Apart from the 2018-19 where they reached the semi-finals, NEUFC have largely struggled in the ISL so far. Athough they signed some quality players and started the previous season on a good note, Asamoah Gyan’s injury turned out to be a point which started the team’s downward spiral. For this 2020-21 season, Northeast United have undergone a lot of team changes like they usually do. The side has lost key players like Redeem Tlang, Puitea, Reagan Singh and Jose Leudo. On the other hand, they have done some decent business to bring in the likes of Ashutosh Mehta, Khassa Camara, Luis Machado, Idrissa Sylla, Benjamin Lambot and Kwesi Appiah. The side’s talsimanic mid-fielder Fede Gallego has also stayed on to give some semblance of continuity. While the Highlanders’ success depends majorly on the foreign players, there will be big expectations on the youngsters, Ninthoi, Lalrempuia and especially Lalengmawia who impressed one and all in the previous season. While it is going to be pretty difficult for NEUFC to even challenge for a Top 4 spot, their biggest worry will be the fact that two of their players have been affected by covid at the time of writing. This has disrupted their training and could even force the organisers to postpone their matches. The under-dogs will hope that the off-field issues are gone and they can solely focus on challenging for a semi-final spot. Expected Formation – 4-3-1-2.

Bengaluru have won a title previously in the ISL so far, can they do it again this season?

Three seasons in the ISL, three semi-final appearances, two finals, one title show that Bengaluru FC have been one of the most consistent sides in the tournament since they jumped ship from the I-League. However, by their own standards, BFC under-performed by finishing third in the league and not even making the group stages in the AFC Cup. From the owners to the management and the players, there was a common agreement that this was the club’s worst season since their inception. In the 2019-20 season, goals were the major issue as both the Indian and foreign players mis-fired. The duo of Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan didn’t live upto expectations while the overseas forwards like Manu Onwu, Deshorn Brown and Kevaughn Frater also mis-fired (Onwu did go onto score seven goals in four matches for Odisha FC on loan). This prompted the owner Parth Jindal to publicly say that he is directly responsible for recruiting quality forwards for the new season. While there was a great air of expectation that BFC will sign the popular Miku or even FC Goa’s Ferran Corominas, the club took it’s time before settling down with Kristian Opseth who had represented Adelaide United in the A-League last season. They also signed the Thai League’s all-time top-scorer Cleiton Silva a few months ago. Apart from the additions of a few Indian youngsters and Spaniard Fran Gonzalez, BFC retained their core. Even the signing of left-back Ajith Kumar was forced only because Nishu Kumar left for a lucrative deal offered by Kerala Blasters. As usual the focus will be on the talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri to deliver the goods. However, BFC require the foreign players to come good along with the duo of Ashique and Udanta to challenge for the title once again in the presence of ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City. If they do it, ATK-MB and Mumbai will be challenged pretty hard. Expected Formation – 4-2-1-3.

Last year’s table toppers FC Goa did well in that season, can they repeat their performance this season?

India’s maiden representative at the group stage of the Asian Champions League, FC Goa have a big season ahead. Built earnestly by Sergio Lobera for three years, FC Goa finally won some silverware last year in the form of the League shield even though he was mysteriously sacked a few games prior to the end of the league stage. A favourite club for most of the neutrals due to their playing style, FC Goa have tried their best to replicate it again by signing Juan Ferrando who has a similarly attacking philosophy. However, he has a major rebuilding job to do as Lobera took some key players like Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahough and the best player of the 2019-20 season, Hugo Boumous. With Carlos Pena retiring and FC Goa choosing to not retain the goal-machine Ferran Corominas, the void is huge. Yet, there seems to be a some quite confidence both amongst the FC Goa faithful also the experts of Indian football that the club has done a superb job in recruiting overseas players once again. The Spanish armada is led by Igor Angulo who has had a stellar last few seasons and he will be joined by the likes of Ivan Gonzalez, Jorge Ortiz and Alberto Noguera apart from Aussie defender James Donachie. The only overseas player to have stayed, Edu Bedia will have a huge role to play in this season after being in Ahmed Jahouh’s shadow for the last two years. There have also been some promising additions in the form of Makan Chothe, Redeem Tlang and Phrangki Buam while Ishan Pandita is a suprise package. Having lost the overseas core along with skipper Mandar Rao Dessai, Manvir Singh and Jackichand Singh, the process of rebuilding does seem huge. However, if one side can get it spot on, it is FC Goa. If the new overseas signings and especially Igor Angulo clicks, expect FC Goa to be at the top once again. Expected Formation – 4-2-3-1.

Which are the players to watch out for this season?

ATK Mohun Bagan – Roy Krishna and Michael Soosairaj, Mumbai City – Adam Le Fondre and Vikram Pratap Singh, Bengaluru FC – Cleiton Silva and Suresh Singh Wangjam, Chennaiyin FC – Fatkhullo Fatkhulloev and Edwin Sydney, Jamshedpur FC – Alex Lima and Nerijus Valskis, Northeast United – Idrissa Sylla and Lalengmawia, Hyderabad FC – Aridane Santana and Liston Colaco, SC East Bengal – Anthony Pilkington and Yumnam Singh, Kerala Blasters – Facundo Pereyra and Rahul KP, Odisha FC – Manu Onwu and Jerry, FC Goa – Jorge Ortiz and Redeem Tlang.

Your top 4 predictions?

Expected Top 4 – Mumbai City, ATK Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru FC, FC Goa.

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