The new season of the I-League is upon us and apart from the big names, there are a few new faces this year. While the core of the teams remain intact, there have been a few changes since last year. Here is a lowdown on all the 10 teams competing this season.
I-League Record: Pld - 16, W - 4, D - 4, L - 8, GF - 15, GA - 21
Best performance: 8th (2016)
Coach: Khalid Jamil
Aizawl FC were originally slated to miss out on their second successive I-League season, but have been given a chance to stay in the top division following a combination of their dream run to the Federation Cup final in 2016, as well as the imminent withdrawal of the Goan clubs - Dempo and Salgaocar. Aizawl's biggest off-season transfer was in the coaching department, where Jahar Das gives way to former Mumbai FC coach Khalid Jamil. Jamil's teams are known to take the fight to the opposition, and that will be a valuable commodity in a young team rich with players from the state of Mizoram. The experience will come through Liberian striker Alfred Jaryan, who turned out for Jamil's Mumbai FC in 2013-14 and played for Aizawl last year. Nigerian Eze Kingsley and Ivory Coast's Kamo Bayi are the other foreign players who will have to play a big role if Aizawl are to make an impact this season.
I-League Record: Pld - 60, W - 34, D - 14, L - 12, GF - 101, GA - 64
Best performance: Champions (2014, 2016)
Coach: Albert Roca
Bengaluru FC took the I-League by storm since their debut in 2013-14, a season they would cap off with their maiden I-League crown. They came within a whisker of emulating East Bengal and Dempo as the only clubs to have retained an NFL/I-League title the following season, but were pipped to the title by Mohun Bagan on the final day of the season. They reclaimed the title in 2016, and then went on to script history as the first Indian team to play the AFC Cup final in November, thus bettering the previous record which belonged to Dempo and East Bengal, both of whom were beaten semi-finalists. Head coach Albert Roca will be getting his first taste of playing other Indian clubs, and the first few weeks could be tricky for the team, with key players like Rino Anto, Lalchhuanmawia, Lathuammawia Ralte and Salam Ranjan Singh all likely to miss the first three weeks through injury. New recruits Harmanjot Khabra, Lenny Rodrigues, Mandar Rao Desai and Arindam Bhattacharya bring a wealth of experience of Indian football, and will hope to combine well with key players Sunil Chhetri, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, John Johnson and Australian midfielder Cameron Watson.
Chennai City FC
Coach: Robin Charles Raju
Outside of the ISL, national league football returns to Chennai after more than a decade, with Chennai City winning the bid and earning the right to field a team in this season's I-League. Coached by Robin Charles Raju, Chennai City will be banking on the experience of goalkeeper Karanjit Singh and midfielders Zakeer Mundampara and Dhanpal Ganesh, each of whom has turned out for the city's ISL franchise Chennaiyin FC across the past couple of seasons. Experienced defender Dharmaraj Ravanan will bring his experience of having played his early football in the state of Tamil Nadu to shore up the backline as well, while Brazilian strikers Marcos Thank and Charles are the only foreigners to have been named in the squad thus far.
Churchill Brothers Sports Club
NFL/I-League Record: Pld - 370, W - 170, D - 114, L - 86, GF - 623, GA - 418
Best performance: Champions (2009, 2013)
Coach: Alfred Fernandes
Churchill Brothers are back in the top fold, and in rather unusual circumstances. The Goans picked up their second I-League title in 2013, and then finished second to last in their previous appearance the following year, getting relegated only due to their license getting revoked for not fulfilling AFC's criteria. The only surviving member from among the foreign players that season is Anthony Wolfe, who was part of the Trinidad and Tobago World Cup squad in Germany in 2006. Churchill Brothers are no longer as formidable a force in Indian football as they were even half a decade ago, and much will depend on local talent such as defender Rowilson Rodrigues and midfielders Nicholas Fernandes and Brandon Fernandes, as coach Alfred Fernandes looks to pick up the pieces from a poor Goa Pro League campaign where Churchill Brothers finished 32 points behind champions Salgaocar.
DSK Shivajians FC
I-League Record: Pld - 16, W - 3, D - 6, L - 7, GF - 16, GA - 25
Best performance: 9th (2016)
Coach: Dave Rogers
Pune-based DSK Shivajians endured a poor I-League debut last season, one where they won the least number of games (3) and thus ended the league with the least number of points (15), yet were assured of avoiding relegation due to the immunity provided to corporate-backed teams entering the league. Shivajians have a tie-up with Liverpool FC for their academy, and the decision to replace head coach Derrick Pereira with Liverpool-born Dave Rogers was taken soon after the conclusion of the last I-League. Spaniard Juan Quero will retain his place in the Shivajians midfield, while striker Kim Song-Yong will bring his experience of having played for three I-League clubs, including champions Bengaluru FC last year. Former Republic of Ireland youth international Shane McFaul and defender Sasa Kolunija from Bosnia and Herzegovina complete the foreign lineup that will complement familiar Indian names like Subrata Pal, Nirmal Chettri, Holicharan Narzary and Sanju Pradhan.
NFL/I-League Record: Pld - 424, W - 209, D - 113, L - 102, GF - 625, GA - 390
Best performance: Champions (2001, 2003, 2004)
Coach: Trevor Morgan
East Bengal is the only team to have featured in the league since inception. Mohun Bagan failed to qualify for what was called the championship stage in the inaugural edition in 1996-97, but have featured in every league since. East Bengal always bring with them a strong team and vie for the title, but have not succeeding in finishing on top since their third NFL crown in 2004 under coach Subhas Bhowmick. Trevor Morgan returns as head coach to a team that he took to runners-up finishes in both 2011 and 2012. Morgan also spent two seasons in the ISL as assistant coach with Kerala Blasters, and is familiar with most of his Indian players, especially Mehtab Hossain, who recently vowed to leave East Bengal club if he cannot help win the I-League this season. Ranti Martins has left the team, though, and much will be expected of the foreign players - Ugandan defender Ivan Bukenya, Haitian midfielder Wedson Anselme and striker Willis Plaza from Trinidad and Tobago.
Minerva Punjab FC
Coach: Surinder Singh
Minerva Punjab are bringing the game back to the state after an absence of six years, following JCT's withdrawal from the top division after the 2010-11 season, and will be expected to take advantage of the dampness and cold of north India in their home matches during the first part of the season. Surinder Singh coaches this team, which finished runners-up behind the now withdrawn Dempo in the second division in 2016, and has players with I-League and ISL experience such as defender Munmun Lugun and striker Manandeep Singh. The foreign players of Minerva Punjab will also bring variety into the team, with Nigerian striker Joel Sunday bringing his experience of having played for Rangdajied United and Aizawl FC to the fore. Joining him up front will be Guam international Marcus Lopez, who will effectively be filling in the single slot for a foreign player from an AFC nation.
NFL/I-League Record: Pld - 410, W - 177, D - 128, L - 105, GF - 564, GA - 413
Best performance: Champions (1998, 2000, 2002, 2015)
Coach: Sanjoy Sen
The 2015 champions were perhaps a touch unlucky to lose their title to Bengaluru FC last season with a game to spare - fittingly, they would beat Bengaluru 5-0 in Kolkata to round off the league for both teams - especially since they only lost two matches among the 16 played. This year, they enter the fray as favourites again, as the reigning Federation Cup champions, and with Eduardo Ferreira, the defender from FC Pune City in the 2016 ISL joining Scotsman Darryl Duffy and fan favourites Sony Norde and Katsumi Yusa as the four foreign players for coach Sanjoy Sen. Bagan like to play their games at high intensity, and that should allow them to start well. As the season goes along, though, Sen's biggest challenge would be to shuffle the constant travelling and playing, especially once their AFC Cup commitments get underway with a preliminary round match against Sri Lanka's Colombo FC on January 31.
I-League Record: Pld - 186, W - 51, D - 65, L - 70, GF - 210, GA - 253
Best performance: 5th (2016)
Coach: Santosh Kashyap
Mumbai FC created the biggest splash in their opening year in the I-League, when they began the 2008-09 season with away wins over Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, and then backed it up by beating Mahindra United in Mumbai, thus making it three wins out of three against former champions to get their I-League career going. That was a different team, though, coached by Englishman David Booth and comprising some of the best young players in Indian football. In the seasons that followed, the reins of the team fell to Khalid Jamil, who was also the team's first official captain, and Mumbai became a gritty but mid-table team in the league. Often using the lowest operating budget, this team has done well to never get relegated from the top division, and use the compact nature of the Cooperage ground in Mumbai to play swift, counter-attacking football. This year they have roped in Santosh Kashyap as coach and retained the services of former India international Steven Dias. Kashyap worked wonders two seasons ago with Shillong's Royal Wahingdoh -- encouraging young players like Jackichand Singh and Seityasen Singh to come to the fore -- and Mumbai will hope for him to have a similar impact on a team filled with young players.
Shillong Lajong FC
I-League Record: Pld - 138, W - 37, D - 45, L - 56, GF - 156, GA - 212
Best performance: 6th (2014, 2016)
Coach: Thangboi Singto
Shillong Lajong have always been a difficult team to break down, especially when playing in front of their home fans at the Nehru Stadium in Shillong. They have been one of the teams in Indian football that have not been able to deliver on the promise shown in their early days, especially after making the Federation Cup final the same year they made their league debut in 2009-10, eventually losing on penalties to East Bengal. Head coach Thangboi Singto will again lead a talented group of players, most of whom are products of the youth development system of the club and represent the states of the north-east region. Lajong have retained the services of Brazilian forward Fabio Pena, and he will be joined in attack by Aser Dipanda of Cameroon. The midfield will see Japan's Yuta Kinowaki, who used to play a defensive screening role for Aizawl FC last year, while Romanian centre-back Dan Ignat will be making his first appearance in Indian football this year.
With statistical inputs by Gautam Roy, football historian and media manager of East Bengal football club.