The Indian Super League (ISL) begins this Friday, after months of planning to work around the COVID-19 pandemic, and putting bio-bubbles in place. Three venues across Goa will play host to the matches, and all teams will have the option of making five substitutions.
The coaches have already expressed their concerns about the lack of match practice going into the first competitive football in eight months, and injuries will be a big concern across the board. Nonetheless, the first month is loaded with some blockbuster matches, including the first Kolkata derby of the ISL. Here are our recommendations of the seven best games for the seventh season that you simply cannot miss.
Kerala Blasters vs ATK Mohun Bagan
When: Friday, November 20
Where: GMC Stadium, Bambolim
What to expect: Mohun Bagan, who merged with ATK for this ISL, signed off from the I-League as champions, but opted to release head coach Kibu Vicuna. ATK Mohun Bagan wished to continue with Antonio Habas, and Vicuna has since taken charge of Kerala. He will have a point to prove against his former employers, and has some experienced foreign players who can help -- centre-back Bakary Kone, one of Burkina Faso's most-capped internationals, played five seasons at Lyon and one at Malaga. English forward Gary Hooper has extensive experience of playing across all divisions of England, including a Premiership spell with Norwich City, shortly after three years at Celtic. Spanish midfielder Sergio 'Cido' Cidoncha will be looking to put behind him a disappointing first year in Kerala last season, following his impressive run with Jamshedpur FC in 2018-19.
ATK Mohun Bagan should be their usual counter-attacking selves, with Pritam Kotal, Tiri, Sandesh Jhingan, Prabir Das and Sumit Rathi providing both defensive solidity and ability moving forward. Expect the attacking duo of Roy Krishna and David Williams to pick up from where they left off, but this early examination against Kerala could be a good litmus test of how much teams have worked out the former A-League strike pair.
Battle to watch out: Jessel Carneiro and Nishu Kumar, the latter fresh out of a good stint at Bengaluru FC, will have their hands full in keeping Roy Krishna and David Williams in check. Yet, Kerala will challenge their opponents more when these two are able to move up and send in probing crosses into the opposition penalty box. Picking their moments will be critical, especially for the full backs.
When: Sunday, November 22
Where: Nehru Stadium, Fatorda
Last meeting: Table-toppers FC Goa were reined in by a Sunil Chhetri special at the Kanteerava in a 2-1 win for Bengaluru FC on January 3, 2020. Hugo Boumous scored the only goal for Goa in a feisty encounter.
What to expect: Goa finished top during the league stage last season, but the current team is largely a rebuilding project under Spanish coach Juan Ferrando. Midfielder Edu Bedia remains one of the few links with the dominant Goa sides of the past two seasons, and the squad looks well equipped in most departments, but will need to find some consistency in attack. They will look to Spaniard Igor Angulo and Ishan Pandita, already a name to watch out for at just 22, for the goals.
BFC themselves have made some smart transfers in the off-season, with Spain's massively influential Fran Gonzalez, who starred both in defence and in midfield for Bagan during their I-League win, adding to the experience of stalwarts Juanan, Dimas Delgado and Erik Paartalu. Chhetri continues to lead the line, and will hope that striker Kristian Opseth will be able to reproduce the kind of prolific domestic form he's shown in his country of origin Norway, Turkey and Australia. You would expect Bengaluru to have most of the answers on the night in this encounter, but the new Goa will want to make their first impression a big one.
Battle to watch out: Mohammad Nawaz (or Naveen Kumar, if he's the chosen one in goal) will need to be on his toes against a team with great set-piece ability. Bengaluru will create avenues to fire the ball in from all angles -- free kicks, corners and just usual crosses -- and that will bring in the physicality of Paartalu, Delgado, Gonzalez and Opseth into play. Goa's goalkeeper on the night has to be flawless in decision-making.
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When: Tuesday, November 24
Where: Tilak Maidan, Vasco
Last meeting: Chennaiyin spanked Jamshedpur 4-1 on January 23, 2020, in the middle of an unbelievable run of form under coach Owen Coyle that saw them rise from no-hopers all the way to the final in March. Nerijus Valskis scored two goals on his way to the Golden Boot.
What to expect: Jamshedpur, who have never qualified for the playoffs in their three seasons in the ISL, have famously suffered from a shortage of goals each year. Coyle has moved from Chennaiyin to Jamshedpur, and brought his Lithuanian striker Valskis with him. Valskis and Coyle may have gone, but Chennaiyin still boast one of the most exciting crop of Indian players in the league -- Anirudh Thapa, Jerry Lalrinzuala, Vishal Kaith, Dhanpal Ganesh, Edwin Vanspaul and Lallianzuala Chhangte will all look to press for places in the national team.
This is a sleeper pick for the game of the season, where you would expect both teams to play fast, attacking, no-holds-barred football. A high-scoring draw would not be a surprise result.
Battle to watch out: Chennaiyin are a little light in defence this season, and that's where Eli Sabia, the big bruiser of a Brazilian in central defence, will have to pull his weight to mark former teammate Valskis out of the contest. Valskis is quick, good in the air and has great movement off the ball, but if there's one player in the Chennaiyin lineup to nullify him, it would be Sabia.
When: Wednesday, November 25
Where: Nehru Stadium, Fatorda
Last meeting: Mathematically, Mumbai City FC still harboured playoff ambitions when they travelled to Margao on February 12, and then India international Rowllin Borges gave them a lead inside 20 minutes. Goa responded with three goals in the first half, and eventually won 5-2.
What to expect: Former Goa coach Sergio Lobera left in an unseemly hurry when on the cusp of confirming their status as league winners, and has since moved to Mumbai, now officially part of the City Football Group. Former Goa players like Mandar Rao Dessai, Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh and Boumous have also made the trip to Mumbai with him, bolstering a team that has Amrinder Singh, Borges and Raynier Fernandes. Bart Ogbeche and his prolific scoring boots (27 goals in two ISL seasons) have also moved from Kerala to Mumbai. If matches were decided on paper, you would give this by TKO to Mumbai, but that's where the new Goan team will have to put in a statement in defending their league stages crown. With their star signings, Mumbai will be expected to roll most opposition over, and that could bring a pressure of its own to bear on the side.
Battle to watch out: Bedia would have faced off against the likes of Jahouh and Boumous often in training, but when they do it for the first time as opponents in the ISL, it would be intriguing to see what tricks Bedia has up his sleeve. Arguably one of the most skillful players in the ISL -- something he shares with his former teammates -- Bedia also has game smarts, earning fouls and cards for the opponents given the slightest opportunity. He might milk that ability to the fullest against two of the more volatile foreign players.
SC East Bengal vs ATK Mohun Bagan
When: Friday, November 27
Where: Tilak Maidan, Vasco
Last meeting: They have never played in the ISL, but the clubs have over 300 meetings among them since a Kolkata derby in 1925. Mohun Bagan did beat East Bengal 2-1 in the I-League on January 19, which remains their only meeting for 2020.
What to expect: ATK Mohun Bagan are effectively holders of both recent crowns in Indian football, the ISL and the I-League, and must start outright favourites against a team coached by former Liverpool and England star Robbie Fowler. Jhingan joins what was arguably the tightest defence in the league last season, and Krishna continues to helm the attack with Williams. Can East Bengal's foreigners such as Aaron Amadi-Holloway, Anthony Pilkington and Danny Fox combine with former Bagan stars Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh to give East Bengal the perfect start to their ISL journey in their centenary year? This could be a cagey match, decided more by a defensive mistake, and either side's ability to punish it, rather than individual brilliance.
Battle to watch out: It may not scream out as the biggest match-up in this game, but Lalpekhlua against Pronay Halder holds out promise, not least because of how familiar one is with the other's game. Both men have teamed up for Arrows, Dempo, Mohun Bagan and India, and as such Halder's physicality will be a constant hurdle that Jeje will need to navigate to come forward and get into scoring avenues. Halder is taller but Jeje just a tad stronger.
ATK Mohun Bagan vs FC Goa
When: Wednesday, December 16
Where: Nehru Stadium, Fatorda
What to expect: ATK's win in January 2020 was actually their first in the ISL against Goa since 2016, highlighting the seeming chasm which had opened up between the two sides since Sergio Lobera came in to coach Goa, and ATK suffered a couple of poor seasons following their second title run under Jose Molina.
Antonio Habas brings with him his trademark pragmatism as coach, and this would also be the first meeting between the ISL playoffs winners and the league stage champions of last season. About a month into the competition, we will also get a good idea of how Goa play under Ferrando. Under Lobera, the team often played boom or bust, but if they can marry attack with caution, they could still be a handful for ATK Mohun Bagan's star-studded team
Battle to watch out: Seriton Fernandes is one of FC Goa's key men in both defence and attack, with some great strength to complement his courage in defence, and imagination in swooping into attack and taking the odd shot on goal from his right full-back position. His contests with Javi Hernandez and Edu Garcia will be critical on the night. If Seriton is on the ball often, and ideally not any deeper than the half-line on most occasions, Goa will have gone a long way towards neutralising the ATK Mohun Bagan midfield.
Kerala Blasters vs SC East Bengal
When: Sunday, December 20
Where: GMC Stadium, Bambolim
Last meeting: Never met before.
What to expect: This will just be a superb fixture to look forward to from a social media perspective, with the fan following of both teams, especially scores of fans worldwide connected virtually to the teams through online forums.
The football should also be exciting, with East Bengal looking for some form of revenge against Vicuna for the derby defeat against Mohun Bagan earlier this year -- by all accounts, East Bengal had a great second half, despite losing their most influential substitute to an injury, and conceded a winner in a 2-1 defeat against the run of play. In addition, by this time of the season, both sides could find themselves in a mid-table logjam, and the three points could count for much as they play their penultimate matches of 2020.
Battle to watch out: As he evolves as a footballer, Sahal Abdul Samad will look to become an integral part of Kibu Vicuna's plans at Kerala Blasters, and his match-up with the experienced defender Danny Fox in this match could be a highlight. Fox was once competing with Luke Shaw for the left-back's role at Southampton, and the former Scotland international is one that coach Robbie Fowler would look to ensure Sahal's influence in the attacking third is kept to a minimum