A new season of the Indian Super League is upon us. Almost. The league returns to the pitch and our television screens on October 7th. Here's all you need to know:
Tell us, what's different?
The big one? No bubble! We're back to the traditional home-and-away format, and that'll be a relief to all. No more talk of bio-bubble fatigue and breaches and last-minute panic.
Really? So no more artificial crowd noises?
Nope. Unless someone's playing so poorly that no one turns up at a stadium, I guess.
Much more importantly, fans, eh?
Yes, fans in stands!
The difference fans make to a match was highlighted sharply in the final last year - allowed in after two long years, they made the day.
Another major shift, and this should really help stadium-going fans, is that for most of the season, games will only happen from Thursday to Sunday. This also simplifies things for the TV viewer - a game every day can become very tedious, very fast.
Wait, is there finally going to be promotion-relegation this season?
Nope. But promotion (from the I-League) is supposed to start from the end of this season - whether that earlier announced roadmap will be followed or not is another matter altogether.
But there's one more rather big change, isn't there?
Oh, yes. Almost forgot. The playoffs will now be played between the top six, instead of the usual top four.
Half the league can get into the playoffs?
Okay, then. Moving on, how are the teams looking?
Where do you want to start?
Where else? Kolkata!
Ah, the maidan. Drama central.
East Bengal fans spent months wondering whether they will even take part in the ISL after the exit of investor Shree Cements. Emami stepped in finally, and as has become usual, the club formed a squad after everyone else had done their summer's business. Oh, and then they bought Stephen Constantine back. Which can mean only one thing... It's big ol' 2022 and Sumeet Passi is back.
No coach in the league, though, knows Indian football quite like Constantine and, love him or hate him, he does know how to get results. There are some fun signings too - Cleiton Silva, Ivan Gonzalez, Alex Lima are proven entities while Aniket Jadhav and VP Suhair make for an exciting domestic strikeforce.
Across the maidan, ATK Mohun Bagan aren't doing too well. The battle for the soul of the club rages on - To (keep) ATK or not to (keep) the prefix remains the biggest question the top management have to answer; and with fans in stands for the first time in the league since this acquisition/merger/investment deal (depending on who you ask) happened, this question will be asked loudly and repeatedly.
On the field things aren't looking great either. Their Durand Cup and AFC Cup campaigns were pretty disastrous, while new captain Florentin Pogba looks like he'll need a lot more time to settle in. With stalwarts Roy Krishna and David Williams out, coach Juan Ferrando knows the pressure is well and truly on him.
What about the two champions?
The ISL champions, Hyderabad FC, did well in keeping most of their title winning squad together but that's the only positive they can take out of this summer. Ashish Rai and Junanan will be major misses, as will Aniket Jadhav; but the real worry stems from the fact that no major incomings have happened. The popular saying goes 'strengthen while at the top,' and Hyderabad have absolutely not done that. A lot will depend on coach Manolo Marquez continuing to work his magic, and Bart Ogbeche continuing to do what Bart Ogbeche always does.
Jamshedpur FC, league shield holders, have it worse. On the surface at least. They had to let go of both inspirational-coach Owen Coyle and absolute-best-player Greg Stewart over the summer - the kind of blows many a side fail to recover from. Coyle's replacement, Aidy Boothroyd, and his new foreign signings Harry Sawyer and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas have their task properly cut out.
Ouch. Anyone had a worse summer?
NorthEast United. As usual, they're impossible to predict - will their entirely-new-to-India set of foreigners (led by the experienced Matt Derbyshire) find their feet quickly? Can coach Marco Balbul steady a very rocky ship? Can the likes of Emil Benny and Jithin MS live up to their undoubted potential? So many questions, so few answers. Typical.
Sigh. Has anyone had a good summer?
Odisha! Josep Gombau is back, and he's brought back Carlos Delgado with him. Amrinder Singh has signed on, and he has a point to prove. Diego Mauricio is back after a decent stint with Mumbai while Michael Soosairaj will be hoping he can put his injury woes behind him. The squad's a good mixture of youth and experience, and with Gombau at the helm it promises to be fun, at least.
Mumbai City FC, meanwhile, are probably clear winners of the transfer market. They are the favourites after the signings of Greg Stewart and Jorge Pereyra Diaz, and the form of Lallianzuala Chhangte has come as a massive bonus. Coach Des Buckingham has spent considerable time with his squad now and will be better prepared to face whatever it is Indian football has to throw at him.
Wait, didn't Bengaluru FC win the Durand Cup?
Yes! And that's cause for optimism, but it's still a pre-season trophy for all intents and purposes. They are still a bit of a bore to watch but it's understandable that new coach Simon Grayson wants to solidify their defence first.
But they did make one of the statement signings of the summer - by bringing in Roy Krishna to play alongside Sunil Chhetri up top. Tasty.
Oh, and watch out for young Sivasakthi Narayanan.
- Bengaluru FC (@bengalurufc) September 18, 2022
Anyone else in the not-sure-but-potentially-exciting boat?
Chennaiyin are also coming off a terrible slump, and the man tasked with pulling them out is Thomas Brdaric. He has a contingent of first-time-in-ISL foreigners and a young and exciting bunch of Indian talent to work with. As always, a lot will depend on Anirudh Thapa finding form.
Goa, meanwhile, have undergone massive changes, bringing back former player Carlos Pena as head coach and the excellent Alvaro Vazquez as primary striker. The only foreigner who's been retained is Mr. Goa, Edu Bedia, but there's quiet excitement about what they're doing.
We're missing someone, aren't we?
Ah, the Kerala Blasters. Coming off their first final appearance in six years, the Blasters have done something they've never done before: retained their coach. There's more on Ivan Vukomanovic here, and he's the primary reason their massive fanbase is going into 2022-23 with palpable anticipation.