From Pena to play-off berths, the new ISL season has some changes

A new Indian Super League (ISL) season kicks off Friday with a series of firsts: a shared stadium, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal playing at home, players under 23 required in matchday rosters, six teams in the mix for play-off berths and a full-time coach who was a player in the league.

ISL will return to the home-and-away format after two seasons due to Covid-19 meaning ATK Mohun Bagan (ATKMB) and East Bengal will call the Salt Lake stadium home. From play-off berths, league winners and another final, ISL has drawn a lot from the A-League which also starts on Friday. Stadium sharing – three teams are doing that in Melbourne this season – will be added to that list in 2022-23.

An amphitheater buzzing and buzzing with fans would be as far from the purified bio-bubbles as Kolkata is from Goa. How ATKMB and East Bengal react to them can affect where they end up. East Bengal starts on Friday; the first step in coach Stephen Constantine’s quest for 35 points will be taken in Kochi against last season’s runner-up Kerala Blasters. Constantine’s goal is seven more than their total in ISL, but as he said in the interview with, he’s not inclined to make hasty predictions.

It’s been over two months since Constantine had his first session hours after he reached Kolkata and in his words, they have a good group who, by the time he leaves, should take East Bengal “to a better place than when I came”. Considering East Bengal finished last in 2021-22, the former India head coach isn’t raising the bar, but they look sturdier than in their first two attempts to try. Cleiton Silva, VP Suhair are forwards who have proven their mettle in ISL, as are centre-back Ivan Gonzalez and goalkeeper Kamaljeet Singh who activated a release clause and left Odisha FC.

East Bengal continued to trust foreigners with ISL experience – naming two of them in the five listed for captaincy – as did defending champions Hyderabad FC, league shield winners Jamshedpur FC and Mumbai City. Bengaluru FC, Kerala Blasters and ATKMB signed three new foreign players including Paul Pogba’s brother Florentin, but FC Goa, Chennaiyin FC, Odisha FC and NorthEast United decided to do their rebuilding through imports, most of whom went to India for the first time come time.

In keeping with this trend of change, seven of the 11 teams have new coaches this season, including FC Goa, who have recruited former player Carlos Pena. Three out of four who failed to reach the semi-finals last season. Bengaluru FC is one of those who have changed coaches and former Premier League defender Simon Grayson started his assignment by winning the Durand Cup. It filled a hole in Sunil Chhetri’s trophy-laden closet and gave Roy Krishna his second title in India after the ISL with ATK. Should Juan Ferrando fail to get ATKMB off to a good start, any goal Krishna scores – he had three in the Durand Cup – could spell uncertainty over his future.

Having the top six teams qualify for playoff berths gives everyone a little more to play for. It was also practical to raise the age of development players to under 23, as Covid-19 had brought youth leagues to a standstill for over two years. Each team must have five development players in the roster with two mandatory in the match day squad of 20. As Constantine has said, the focus should be on developing Indian players. Their headliner would be 21-year-old Sivasakthi Narayan of Bengaluru FC, who scored five goals in the Durand Cup, including one in the final. That was how much Bartholomew Ogbeche, who won the ISL Golden Boot last season with 18 strikes, got. Mumbai City FC teammates Greg Stewart, who won the Golden Ball with Jamshedpur FC in 2021-22, and Lallianzuala Chhangte were joint goalscorers in the Durand Cup with seven goals each.

The changed Asian calendar, moving from Spring-Fall to Fall-Spring to align with Europe, means there’s no clarity on how tournament spots in ISL9 would be decided. The 2023-24 Asian Champions League and AFC Cup will start in August, meaning two editions of ISL would have been completed since Mumbai City FC and ATKMB played in the Champions League and AFC Cup in 2022 respectively.

“In this competition, anyone can beat anyone. Nobody expected Kerala Blasters to make it to the final after such a long dry spell. With ISL, anything is possible. This year will be the same, although many things will be different,” said Ivan. Vukomanovic, the first coach to be retained by Kerala Blasters, Thursday.

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