The third season of the Indian Super League (ISL) kicks off on Saturday (1) when NorthEast United FC take on Kerala Blasters.
With 14 games in two months and marquee names like Diego Forlan, Florent Malouda and Helder Postiga joining home-grown stars including Sunil Chhetri, 2016 could be one to remember.
This is Eastern Eye’s guide to the eight teams, weighting up whether defending champions Chennaiyin FC can retain their crown.
Chennaiyin FC will be hard to beat if they come anywhere close to replicating the second half of last season’s title-winning run.
They won the most games, scored the second most goals and conceded the least, and that was after losing six of their first 10 games. This year, though, they will have to do without star man Elano Blumer, infamously arrested after the final win for allegedly assaulting an FC Goa owner.
Top-scorer John Stiven Mendoza is not involved either, leaving former Italian World Cup winner Marco Materazzi searching for someone capable of finding the net on a regular basis.
Nigerian striker Dudu Omagbemi – who bagged 73 goals in 89 games for I-League side Sporting Clube de Goa – has been given that task, and will likely line up alongside the leading Indian goal-getter in the ISL, Jeje Lalpekhlua, in what could be a potent partnership.
Materazzi’s defensive guile was one of the big reasons for their revival, and adding John Arne Riise to their ranks should further bolster that area. Turning out for Delhi last term, the former Liverpool left-back should link up well with Chennaiyin favourite Bernard Mendy.
Raphael Augusto and Manuele Blasi are also ones to watch and will be responsible for dictating the action in midfield.
Atletico de Kolkata have quickly established themselves as one of the ISL’s big clubs, winning the first edition in 2014 and reaching the semi-finals last year.
They have a new manager in ex-Spain goalkeeper Jose Francisco Molina and a new ground. Portugal marquee forward Postiga is back to make up for lost time. He picked up an ankle injury shortly after scoring two goals in Kolkata’s opening game, and didn’t feature again.
If he stays fit, his role with Iain Hume, who scored 11 goals in 2015, could fire the red and whites to the title again. Ex-Real Madrid midfielder Borja Fernandez plays a big part in protecting the defensive unit, led by India international centre-back Arnab Mondal and Tiri from Spain. New acquisition Shilton Paul will strengthen the team in goal.
After making the last four last time, Delhi Dynamos replaced Roberto Carlos with Italian legend Gianluca Zambrotta.
Malouda had a great first year in Indian football and returns in a play-making role he excelled in. Everything went through the former Chelsea and France star, and Zambrotta will expect big things. Three goals in pre-season has only enhanced expectations.
Attacking midfielder Bruno Pelissari is an important player, as is one-time Real Madrid academy prospect Marcos Teber. In attack, Richard Gadze will want to better his four goal haul of 12 months ago. Badara Badji joins from Dinamo Zagreb and competes for a place with Marcelinho.
Another Madrid man, defender Ruben Gonzalez, is the team’s second marquee player and will lead the back line. David Abby also brings experience.
FC Goa’s Brazilian influence is there for all to see again this season. They have a Samba star at the helm in Zico and a marquee player in Lucio; seven more players are from the nation too.
Former youth international Rafael Coelho leads the line and is always a genuine threat along with compatriot Reinaldo.
Richarlyson, Trinidade Goncalves and Julio Cesar bring flair to the midfield and Spaniard Joffrey Mateu has the job of controlling the midfield.
There is plenty of Indian class too. Forward Robin Singh completes a powerful attacking trio, while keeper Laxmikant Kattimani, Denzil Franco, Raju Gaikwad and Debabrata Roy are also pushing for a place in the starting 11.
FC Pune’s chances have been hit by the loss of star striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, who will miss the season with an ankle problem.
The former Chelsea and Barcelona star joins Cameroon defender Andre Bikey on the injury table, forcing Jose Antonio Habas into some late changes. The Spanish coach has drafted in compatriot Tato and Momar Ndoye to score the goals.
Habas, brought in after leading Kolkata to title glory two years ago, has also signed ex-Barcelona midfielder Pitu. Wide man Sandju Pradhan and centre-back Gouramanghi Singh boost a strong home contingent including Rahul Bheke and Narayan Das.
Mumbai City arguably pulled off the signing of the summer with the capture of Forlan. Forlan, who scored over 100 goals for Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, also scored five goals at the 2010 World Cup as Uruguay finished in fourth place. Two years later, two goals in the final won his country the Copa America.
Whether he can still do it at 37 is questionable, but Forlan and Chhetri should form a dangerous attack, but only when the Indian captain has finished the AFC Cup with Bengaluru FC. Goalkeeper Amrinder Singh is in the same situation.
Alexandre Guimaraes is the coach, replacing Nicolas Anelka. He will be looking to local captures Jackichand Singh and Boithang Haokip to make an impact. Singh is a pacey winger, while Hoakip has become a regular in the midfield for the national team.
Midfielder David Lalrinmuana, the Football Players’ Association of India Fans Player of the Year for 2015-16, is a new recruit too. Striker Sony Norde is one of the best in the league.
NorthEast United FC have had a strange pre-season. First they appointed Sergio Farias as coach, only for him then to return to his old club Suphanburi in Thailand two months later. Portugal’s Nelo Vingada is his replacement.
Goals were a worry last year and a lot will depend on if Nico Velez can improve on the five goals he netted last term.
Lallianzuala Chhangte is the most exciting player in India. A product of Liverpool’s youth academy in India, he became the second youngest to represent his country last December at 19, scoring twice on his debut against Nepal.
Japanese attacking midfielder Katsumi Yusa joins after scoring 27 goals for Mohun Bagan over the past three years. Subrata Pal from Mumbai arrives in goal; ex-Tottenham Hotspur and Ivory Coast midfielder Didier Zokora swaps Pune for United and is the marquee man.
Now under the leadership of Steve Coppell, Kerala Blasters will be out to right the wrongs of last season’s bottom-placed finish and achieve the heights of the inaugural season, where they reached the final under David James.
The ex-Manchester City and Crystal Palace manager has banked on experience, bringing in ex-Newcastle and Aston Villa defender Aaron Hughes, 36, to shore up a leaky back line.
A lot will also be expected of one-time English-based players Michael Chopra, Antonio German, Sanchez Watt and goalkeeper Graham Stack.
Mohammed Rafique and Josue are key men, as is Thonghosiem Haokip, who impressed with four goals in six games for FC Goa last term. Indian international duo Rino Anto and Sandesh Jhinghan will also feature.[TheChamp-Sharing]