The fourth season of India’s top football league – the Hero Indian Super League – is finally underway. The 10-team, 5-month tournament will kick off with an opening match between two-time Champions Atletico de Kolkata and 2-time finalists Kerala Blasters at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi. With the teams increasing from 8 to 10 and the foreign-player cap reduced from 6 to 5 in a team without the dissolution of the marquee-player rule, the onus is now on local talent – young as well as experienced Indian players – to convert their skills into results.
Here are FIVE Indian players to watch out for in Hero ISL 2017:
Sandesh Jhingan (Kerala Blasters)
India’s best and most expensive defender made a huge impact as a 21-year-old center-back in his debut season in 2014, where he won the Emerging Player award. He soon became the first name to be picked on the national team and is arguably the Blasters’ most valuable player. He has a contract that gets him INR 1.23 crore a season – by far the highest for any defender in the league. This year, he will have a longer season to endure, one that will test his fitness at the back, as well as his heading ability in the box. He looks to contain some of Asia’s best strikers in the opposition.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (Bengaluru FC)
The lanky 6’5” goalie is perhaps the most famous footballing name in the country today. He has been India’s No. 1 during their historic unbeaten streak (13 matches now) after becoming the first ever Indian footballer to play in the Europa League. He started for Norwegian side Staebek FC in a Europa qualifying game and has made the brave decision to leave Norway to play for ISL debutants Bengaluru FC this season. An actual transfer fee was agreed upon for his transfer to India – again another first for an Indian – as Sandhu now readies himself to grow even further on the biggest footballing stage in Asia. He was part of the club’s semifinal run in the AFC Cup and will now combine with lethal striker/captain Sunil Chhetri to make BFC one of the strongest and most balanced teams in the tournament.
Jeje Lalpekhlua (Chennaiyin FC)
The 26-year-old Mizoram striker is the tournament’s highest-scoring Indian striker so far. The expert poacher is fresh off, scoring for the national team in their 2-2 draw against Myanmar in the AFC Asia Cup. He has scored 13 goals in the ISL for Chennaiyin and was the 2016 AIFF Player of the Year. Along with Chhetri at the front for India, he has been responsible for their splendid run during a ‘golden’ phase – scoring 20 goals in his young international career so far. Lalpekhlua will especially look to shine in the South Indian derby against Chhetri’s Bengaluru FC – the Indian equivalent of Ronaldo coming up against Messi.
Kean Lewis (FC Pune City)
The Delhi Dynamos might have made a big mistake by not retaining the 25-year-old winger after a stylish last season that saw him find the net 4 times. He has some international experience under his belt, having played for the U23 Houston Dynamos side and has now been picked up by Pune smartly. They know this is a season in which he will be desperate to shine, given that he must be yearning for a spot on the national side. It will be tough but this is his stage.
Udanta Singh (Bengaluru FC)
The uber-talented 21-year-old striker will be playing his first ISL. He is known to be super-quick (the name ‘Udanta’ almost means flight) and has been hailed for his rise through the ranks of the Tata Football Academy. He will partner Chhetri at the front and remains the only player other than the captain to be retained by the two-time I-League Champions this season. He has already made his international debut and could use this season to mature into the star everyone thinks he was destined to be.
OTHERS TO WATCH OUT FOR:
- Eugeneson Lyngdoh (ATK)
- Sunil Chhetri (Bengaluru FC)
- Anas Edathodika (Jamshedpur FC)
- Brandon Fernandes (FC Goa)
- Albino Gomes (Delhi Dynamos)
- Bodo Baoringdao Jr. (Chennaiyin FC)
- Len Doungel (North East United FC)
- Balwant Singh (Mumbai City FC)
- CK Vineeth (Kerala Blasters FC)