A new Indian Super League (ISL) season is upon us, and as ever, India's top-division football league promises to be its best ever iteration this year. There's another team added to the league's roster, with last year's I-League winners Punjab FC now making it a 12-team affair this season.
The foreign players, six of whom each club is allowed to sign, have made a huge impact on the league since its inception. In fact, only in two years out of the first nine has the player of the season been an Indian.
So, with that in mind, who are those foreign players who could have a big impact on their team's chances in ISL 2023-24?
In his two years in the ISL, Stewart has scored 17 goals and assisted a further 18. Those are elite numbers in themselves, but what makes Stewart special is that his impact goes well beyond the numbers he generates. 35 goal contributions in two seasons don't begin to tell the story of the impact that he had for Jamshedpur FC and then Mumbai City.
Sitting behind Mumbai City's three-pronged attack of Lallianzuala Chhangte, Bipin Singh and Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Stewart is Des Buckingham's on-field puppet master. His eye for a pass is complemented by Chhangte and Bipin's speed and desire to keep making runs in behind the defence. His ability to dribble past players always puts him in positions from where he can make a decisive contribution. And when it seems like he's too far away from goal to be a threat, he also has a powerful shot from range that has troubled the best goalkeepers in the league.
Once again, the Scot will be Buckingham's trump card in Mumbai City's attempt to retain the league shield, and regain the ISL trophy.
Mohun Bagan Super Giant's impressive summer business has seen them add the likes of Anirudh Thapa, Sahal Abdul Samad and Anwar Ali to their side, in addition to pedigreed foreign strikers in Jason Cummings and Armando Sadiku, but the man to watch out for remains Mr. Inevitable himself.
Petratos was directly involved in 67.9% of the team's goals last season (when they were ATK Mohun Bagan). For large periods of the season, the ISL champions weren't a convincing outfit, especially offensively. But as long as they had Petratos in the side, his ability to conjure a goal from seemingly nowhere kept them in with a chance of winning games.
He's already begun the season on a positive note, with his inevitable goal in the Durand Cup final, where Bagan beat East Bengal 1-0.
ISL. Jahouh. Sergio Lobera. They're running it back at the Kalinga Stadium this season. Odisha FC's new coach will now be working with the Moroccan midfield metronome at a fourth separate club - third in the ISL. At the previous two ISL teams where Jahouh and Lobera worked together (FC Goa and Mumbai City FC), they won the league shield twice and the ISL trophy once. That should tell you how much of an influence the Moroccan has in a Lobera team.
It is a new environment for both to head into this season, with a buoyant Odisha lifted by last season's Super Cup triumph. But new pastures bring with them familiarity. Odisha have enough firepower in attack, with Roy Krishna having been added to the squad, alongside Diego Mauricio. They have a solid presence at the back too, with Mourtada Fall now joining Carlos Delgado.
Jahouh will be the man stitching that all together, controlling the tempo, stretching play, putting his body on the line to break up play. That right foot is a wand, we've seen it for six years in this league now, and the Kalinga is sure to be blessed with a few swishes and waves of that wand, to create the kind of magic only Jahouh can.
Bengaluru FC won ten games on the bounce at the turn of 2023 to turn their season around and make it through to the ISL final. At the centre of the resurgence was a slight tweak from coach Simon Grayson that enabled their Spanish creative midfielder to have more of an impact on games.
Once again, Hernandez's is a case of an ISL side opting for continuity in an important part of the pitch. With new attacking players in Curtis Main, Ryan Williams, Rohit Danu and Halicharan Narzary joining the Blues this season, it is even more important that Hernandez steps up once again for Grayson. He scored 7 goals and provided 5 assists, making it his most productive season.
That Bengaluru midfield with Rohit Kumar and Suresh Wangjam providing the steel to dovetail with Hernandez's flair worked a treat last season, and is unexpected to change, so there's no reason why the Spaniard shouldn't once again be a massive threat in the final third.
Kerala Blasters's season ended in inexplicable circumstances last year, as they walked off, led by coach Ivan Vukomanovic after Sunil Chhetri's quick free-kick in the knockout tie at the Kanteerava. Luna, Vukomanovic's lieutenant on the pitch, was animatedly gesturing for his teammates to follow their coach out on that night. Like for his club, that night is what Luna's last season will be remembered for.
And yet, there was so much good that he did to get Blasters to the Kanteerava on that day. Remember that ridiculously well-worked team goal against Jamshedpur FC? Remember that curler against Chennaiyin? Remember that opening day goal against East Bengal? The technical precision of Luna's football is why he's once again going to be the Blasters's go-to, especially in a much-changed outfit around him, sans Sahal Abdul Samad.
If the Blasters are to make it at least a third consecutive playoff appearance, they'll probably want more from Luna than his four goals and six assists from last season as well.