Behind closed doors and with a raft of health safety measures in place, football's Indian Super League (ISL) will kick off here on Friday and become the country's first major tournament to be organised since the enforcement of a COVID-19 lockdown eight months ago.
Former champions ATK Mohun Bagan and Kerala Blasters will start the proceedings with what is expected to be a blockbuster clash at the GMC Stadium here. But the season's first big game will undoubtedly be the one between ATK Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal in Fatorda on November 27, the two heavyweights renewing their more-than-a-century-old rivalry in a new avatar.
ATK Mohun Bagan, playing in their first tournament after the merger of last season champion sides of ISL and I-League into one club, will start as the frontrunner for the title in the seventh edition of the lucrative franchise-based tournament. They have roped in some quality players like star India defender Sandesh Jhingan while retaining the core of last season champions ATK side such as Fijian international Roy Krishna who was on rampage against opposition defences.
Roy was last season's joint top-scorer with 15 goals from 21 matches while also providing six assists. He was named captain in the final as ATK cruised to their third ISL title and will return as skipper alongside four other leaders of the newly-formed ATK Mohun Bagan outfit. Chief coach Antonio Lopez Habas had recently announced that five players will be given the captain's armband in rotation through the upcoming season. Of the five, four are members of the team that picked up the title last season with ATK.
Habas has named Fijian striker Roy Krishna and Spanish midfielder Edu Garcia among the captains. Indian players, Pritam Kotal, Arindam Bhattacharya and the seasoned Sandesh Jhingan, will also share the leadership responsibilities.
FC Goa, who won the League Winners Shield last season to become the first side from India to qualify for the group stage of the AFC Champions League, will be hit hard by the departure of star forwards Ferran Corominas and Hugo Boumous.
Both these players established themselves as feared goal scorers in the ISL over the years.
They have also added a few quality players and their knowledge of the home conditions will come handy in their bid to at least reach the play-offs stage. Former winners Bengaluru FC, under Carles Cuadrat, will be among the perennial favourites with an array of top Indian players and proven foreigners.
Cuadrat has ensured that his key players from their 2018-19 title-winning squad are still around. Besides two-time Golden Glove winner Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and ISL's highest Indian goal-scorer Sunil Chhetri, the Spanish head coach has also managed to tie down defender Juanan and midfielders Erik Paartalu and Dimas Delgad. A number of their young and talented players have also been retained, including Ashique Kuruniyan and, most importantly, the high-quality Udanta Singh. PTI