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ISL wish-list: New champions, Indian coaches, and an end to the toppers curse

Can Jeje Lalpekhlua become the first Indian to win the Golden Boot?

The fifth season of the Indian Super League (ISL) gets underway on Saturday, with two-time champions ATK hosting Kerala Blasters at the Salt Lake Stadium in the opening game.

What are five things you would want to see happen this season? Here's ESPN's wish-list. 

New champions, please

There are 10 teams in the fray since 2017-18, and Bengaluru FC (BFC) almost made it a debut season to remember by topping the regular season but were outplayed by a spirited Chennaiyin FC in the final in Bengaluru. 

Chennaiyin and ATK have alternated each of the first four seasons as champions. There have been finals appearances by Kerala Blasters, FC Goa and BFC. Mumbai City FC, Delhi Dynamos and FC Pune City have all made runs to the playoffs.

Can these clubs step up and cap off the regular season with a similar burst of inspiration in the playoffs? For their supporters alone, Kerala would probably be among the sentimental favourites as dark horses this season.

An Indian to win the Golden Boot

Chennaiyin's Jeje Lalpekhlua and BFC's Sunil Chhetri are second and third on the all-time goal-scoring list, with 23 and 21 goals to Iain Hume's 28, but neither has won a Golden Boot in one season.

Chhetri's maiden season for Mumbai City in 2015 saw him record the first hat-trick by an Indian, but he finished well behind overall top scorer Stiven Mendoza of Chennaiyin, who had two hat-tricks himself.

Can Jeje and Chhetri go on to score the most goals by any player this year? It would also bode well for the national team, where the two strikers will lead India's challenge at the AFC Asian Cup in UAE in January 2019. 

How about an Indian in charge of the teams?

As things stand, ISL regulations require that all coaches must be of "international repute" with "significant experience and track record", or "high-profile international players" looking to move to club management. 

As a result, no Indian has been head coach of an ISL club so far. 

That is not to say Indians haven't had some contributions to make in successful teams of the past -- Chennaiyin's winning teams had assistant coaches like Vivek Nagul and Syed Sabir Pasha playing crucial roles in the backroom behind Marco Materrazzi and John Gregory. Similarly, Derrick Pereira and Raman Vijayan have had memorable seasons assisting head coaches in Goa and Delhi over the years.

The ISL structure stands at odds with the top division I-League, where Indian coaches have dominated when pitted against foreign counterparts -- since inception in 1996, Zoran Djordevic, Karim Bencherifa and Ashley Westwood are the only non-Indian coaches to have picked up the title.

When the ISL is helping improve Indian footballers, why not allow Indian coaches to come to the fore and take complete control of teams as well?

Atletico de Kolkata celebrate winning the 2016 ISL.
ATK are two-time champions, but have never defended the title

A bigger role for the U-17 stars

Winger Komal Thatal got some action last season for ATK, but by then the defending champions were left with little realistic chance of fighting for the title. Thatal's Under-17 World Cup team-mates were taken in by the likes of Chennayin and Jamshedpur FC, but most have since been loaned out to Indian Arrows.

Goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh, one of the standout players in last year's U-17 World Cup, is now with Kerala Blasters, after trying his luck in Scotland with Motherwell. Defender Boris Singh will feature in the ATK roster. It is now up to the coaches to invest in some game time for the youngsters while the race to the playoffs is on. 

A winner, from league to the finish

Finally, let's hope the eventual champion lays to rest the curse of the regular season table-topper. Chennaiyin, Goa, Mumbai and Bengaluru all topped the points table in the first four seasons, but none of them won the league ­­-- Goa and Bengaluru stumbling in the final hurdle in 2015 and 2017-18, respectively.

The ISL champions will also represent India at the AFC Cup playoffs the following year, something that caused some debate after BFC topped the regular season in 2017-18, but usurped their AFC slot to Chennaiyin after losing the final. Until the ISL is able to figure out a different solution for rewarding the league toppers, it would be a pleasant change to see the table-toppers maintain that form and lift the cup after winning the final.

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