The fifth season of one of the biggest football tournaments in Asia will get underway on September 29, 2018, and extend to March 2019. Two-time champions ATK will kick off against two-time runners-up Kerala Blasters in the first game of Hero ISL 2018-19.
The Indian Super League 2018-19 is slated to be the franchise’s longest and biggest season yet. The first 12 rounds of ISL fixtures till the mid-season break in December have been announced – unlike last season, there will be no double-headers on the weekends, with matches kicking off at 7.30 PM every evening instead.
With barely a six-month gap between seasons now, the Hero ISL is fast becoming the year-around league it aspired to be. It seems like just yesterday that Sunil Chhetri scored the first goal of the ISL 2017-18 Final for newcomers FC Bengaluru against Chennaiyin FC – 90 minutes later, his heart was broken. Chennaiyin, by far the second best team in the tournament, snatched the title from under Bengaluru’s invincible eyes to win 3-2, in the process becoming the first ISL team to directly qualify for the AFC Cup.
Here’s a quick lowdown on all the ten Hero ISL teams before they do battle:
New Coach: Steve Coppell
Atletico de Kolkata suffered the worst finish in their short ISL history in the 2017-18 season – finishing a lowly 9th, managing to win just 4 of their 18 group stage games. By the end, even the loyal Salt Lake Stadium fans had abandoned the Red and Whites, with the average attendance down to a fourth of previous seasons. But a new-look, new-beginning ATK has the most interesting roster this time: Coppell, the Jamshedpur FC coach, has taken charge, and brought in striker Manuel Lanzarote from FC Goa, Brazilian veteran Everton Santos, Englishman, and ex-Bengaluru defender John Johnson and prolific Nigerian striker Kalu Uche, who set the pitch on fire last season with 13 goals for Delhi Dynamos. Lanzarote, of course, will lead the charge – and look to put two-time champs ATK back on the map.
Coach: David James
The Blasters, who failed to make it to the playoffs last season, had an important pre-season – they suffered heavy defeats against Melbourne City FC and La Liga side Girona. After struggling to get decisive results last season, James has dumped five foreign players including Canadian striker Iain Hume (top scorer in ISL history), former Manchester United defender Wes Brown and striker Dimitar Berbatov. He has retained his best performers and steeled their already impressive defense with the addition of French player Cyril Kali, Indian Anas Edathodika and Mohammed Rakip. The Yellow Tuskers will kick off this time in their first season without ex-owner Sachin Tendulkar and would want to make a mark after suffering one of their worst starts to a season last year.
Coach: John Gregory
The Englishman changed the fortunes of the Southerners with an excellent combination of fitness, variety, and team skills. None of them were top scorers, and the team won with no flashes of individual brilliance. Chennaiyin landed their second ISL title against all odds in the Final and will be looking to be the first team to defend their title successfully. Their pre-season in Malaysia has been solid, if not spectacular. The Marina Machans still overhauled their winning squad, letting go of 11 players. But their core is what is expected to take the underdogs to their third ISL title. Jeje Lalpekhlua, Anirudh Thapa and incoming Italian midfielder Andrea Orlandi will lead the charge.
Coach: Sergio Lobera
The most attacking team in ISL history is also the most fragile. They scored a league-high 42 goals last season in the group stages alone but also conceded 28 while finishing third behind Bengaluru and Chennaiyin. They lost to Chennaiyin in the playoffs, thanks to their failing defense, and have bought veteran Spanish left-back Carlos Pena to plug those holes. FC Goa (The Gaurs) on the song is a sight to behold, and the addition of Indian winger Jackichand Singh will only add to their speed. Golden booter Ferran Corominas will, however, miss his Spanish partner in crime Lanzarote (now in ATK) this season.
New Coach: Carles Cuadrat
Bengaluru, who broke the 40-point barrier last season, will be hurting. They recently crashed out of the inter-zonal semifinals of the AFC Cup months after losing to Chennaiyin in the ISL Final in a huge upset on the night. Nobody expected Chhetri and co. to lose, and they will have a chance to immediately avenge it in their season opener against the defending champions on September 30th. They have retained 12 players under new coach Cuadrat, keeping the faith – with Chhetri, goalie Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, striker Udanta Singh and Miku (20 goals last season) expected to lead the way again. The Blues have also integrated five BFC B players this season. New signings like Albert Serran, Chencho Gyeltshen, and Xisco Hernandez will have to fight for a permanent place in the first team this season.
New Coach: Cesar Ferrando
With the Spanish coach comes an influx of Spanish players (especially attacking Atletico B midfielder Sergio Cidonca), but all eyes will be on Australian legend Tim Cahill, who will be Jamshedpur’s marquee player this season. The best defensive team of last season – thanks to Spanish defender Tiri and Brazilian Memo – struggled to score goals and finished 5th in the table despite conceding only 18 goals in 18 games. They scored only 16 (the second least after NorthEast United) and will rely on 38-year-old Cahill to do break out into his trademark celebration more than a dozen times. Goalie Subrata Paul, who won the Golden Glove last season (7 clean sheets), is expected to continue Jamshedpur’s miserly form.
Mumbai City FC
New Coach: Jorge Costa
Drawing just 2 out of 18 games last season cost the middling Mumbai City FC – especially because they were all or nothing (won 7, lost 9) in most games. They will want to do better than 7th but were always playing catch-up. Captain Lucian Goian is the only foreigner to be retained, while the new Portuguese coach brought in Uruguayan midfielder Matias Mirabaje, ex-Portuguese national player Paulo Machado, Senegalese winger Moudou Sougou and Arnold Issoko, both of whom last played for Portuguese clubs. The Islanders will hope that new (former ATK) signing and Indian enigma Mohammed Rafique finds consistency and form in his first season outside Kolkata.
Pune City FC
New Coach: Miguel Angel Portugal
Portugal is one of five Spanish coaches this season. The ex Delhi Dynamos manager will want to continue Pune’s surprisingly good form from the ISL 2017-18 season, where they finished fourth ahead of Jamshedpur FC and lost to Bengaluru in the playoffs. Skipper Marcelinho will remain at the core of these ambitions, while Brazilian winger Diego Carlos was ex-coach Ranko Popovic’s favorite weapon. But the most popular signing has been ISL legend Iain Hume – Pune is his third ISL team after he spent two seasons each with ATK and Kerala Blasters. He is injured, though, and will have to wait to make his debut for Pune. New defenders Martin Diaz and Matt Mills will have a role to play in strengthening Pune’s inconsistent backline.
New Coach: Josep Gombau
No team conceded more than the Dynamos’ 37 goals last season. They finished 8th eventually but were on an upward curve by the end of the season – causing a few top-table upsets and going from bottom to 8th in the last month. Their brand of football has been questionable but attractive, and with 5 of their prime Indian players getting a two-week stint earlier this year at Qatar’s world-famous Aspire Academy, the Dynamos have the opportunity to be more than just giant killers. Their most crucial signing might be Slovenian playmaker Rene Mihelic from champions Chennaiyin – a dead-ball specialist and wily assister who played a key role in the Southerner’s march to victory.
New Coach: Eelco Schattorie
Finishing bottom of the ISL table last season was something not even technical advisor Avram Grant could prevent the team from doing. The Highlanders remain one of the rare regular ISL teams to have finished outside the top 4 in all 4 seasons (last, 5th, 5th, last) – and will require a miracle this season to not do the same. They won only 3 out of 18 games last season. They have retained four of their most promising players – Raegan Singh, Rowllin Borges, Lalrempuia Fanai and TP Rehenesh. Their top signing is Nigerian striker Bartholomew Obgeche, who along with Uruguayan Juan Cruz Mascia, will be expected to score goals for a team that is not known for their attacking prowess. The other foreign signings are all interestingly coming in for their first ever Asian stint – especially Croatian defenders Mato Grgic and Mislav Komorski and Columbian midfielder Jose David Leudo.