Eight months and six days since ATK lifted the ISL 2019-20 trophy at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda, India's top-tier league is back.
In this season unlike any other, the 11 teams are all based in Goa, with three stadia hosting the 115 games that will be played through the course of the campaign. COVID-19's impact in India has meant that bio-secure bubbles have had to be created for all teams in Goa, where they will be based for more than five months.
The additions of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan also make this season that much more exciting, with the history and legacy of the two Kolkata giants adding their unique flavour to the ISL.
Mohun Bagan have joined hands with last year's champions ATK, with the merged entity having retained the bulk of last year's title-winning ATK squad.
In fact, ATK Mohun Bagan have become even stronger with the additions of Tiri, Sandesh Jhingan and Subhasish Bose. The two Indian internationals further strengthen the defence. That means that head coach Antonio Lopez Habas wouldn't have to play Michael Soosairaj as a left wing-back, if he chooses to continue with last season's back three.
Several contenders vie for ISL crown
Last season, Bengaluru FC lost the ISL semfinal to ATK. The fact that a semifinal exit was spoken of as a failure is an indicator of the standards that Bengaluru FC have set themselves.
As always, the presence of Indian superstars like Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu makes Bengaluru automatic contenders near the top of the table.
The additions of strikers Cleiton Silva and Kristian Opseth in an attempt to solve their goal-scoring issues from last season, is also a sign that Bengaluru FC are not willing to take last season's disappointment in their stride. They want to set it right at the first time of asking.
The City Football Group's riches have given Mumbai City FC a completely new face this season. In Sergio Lobera, Mumbai City FC have appointed a head coach who has achieved everything in the ISL, apart from winning the trophy.
In his three-year reign at FC Goa, Lobera got his team to play eye-catching football, scoring goals for fun. However, despite guiding his side to the ISL League Shield last season, Lobera and Goa parted ways even before the season ended.
Lobera still has a score to settle in India. That aim of winning the trophy, while playing beautiful football, is an ambition shared by the City Football Group across their clubs.
Lobera has brought Hugo Boumous, Ahmed Jahouh and Mourtada Fall with him from the Gaurs, while they have made some other spectacular foreign additions as well.
Bartholomew Ogbeche has 27 ISL goals in the last two ISL seasons, despite not playing for one of the more fancied teams in the league. His strike partner will be Englishman Adam Le Fondre.
Le Fondre has had an extremely successful spell in the A-League with Sydney FC, and will be looking to bring that goalscoring vein to Goa for this ISL season as well.
With a strong Indian core comprising of the likes of Amrinder Singh, Sarthak Golui, Raynier Fernandes, and Rowllin Borges, Lobera has the ingredients in place for a successful stint in Mumbai.
If the past has taught us one thing, it is to not doubt the decisions taken by the FC Goa management. Lobera is now a closed chapter for FC Goa, with Juan Ferrando being appointed for the club's first season in the AFC Champions League.
FC Goa have trusted the quality of their recruitment, in what has been an overhaul over the off-season.
The ISL's greatest ever foreigner Ferran Corominas brought the curtain down on his spell in India, after a sensational three years, in which he became the first-ever player to score 50 goals in the ISL.
Igor Angulo has the unenviable task of having to fill Coro's shoes, while the likes Jorge Ortiz and Alberto Noguera are also going to be tasked with important roles for FC Goa.
Even among the other sides, last season's finalists Chennaiyin FC have retained most of their Indian core from last season, while making some shrewd additions, in terms of their foreigners.
Kerala Blasters, too, with appointing Kibu Vicuna as their head coach, look like they could primed for a charge near the top of the ISL table.
For the other five teams at this point, there are a few too many unknowns to be able to make a fair assessment of where they stand before a single ball has been kicked.
In conclusion, it is fair to say that the 2020-21 season of the ISL, while being the most unique, could also be the closest since the competition began in 2014.Published 20 Nov 2020, 14:52 IST