The fifth edition of Indian Super League (ISL) is all set to get underway on Saturday, September 29, with holders Chennaiyin FC beginning their campaign against last season's runners-up Bengaluru FC the following day in the Garden City.
John Gregory's side will be shouldering the burden of expectations in the new season but the retention of the core unit should help them deal with pressure situations better. The 25-member Marina Machans squad has a good mix of youth and experience with which they will be hoping to launch a strong title bid.
Gregory has insisted that his team will settle for nothing less than title win, insisting "real champions" tend to extend the winning streak. The Englishman is seeking inspiration from Sir Alex Ferguson's legendary Manchester United sides to become the first team in the ISL to successfully defend the title.
Chennaiyin have seldom had big names and the trend continues this year as well with the league itself tending to shed its love for marquee names. Nonetheless, the squad led by Mailson Alves of Brazil has players who have it in them to inspire the team into dominating the rest of the pack once again.
Chennaiyin FC - ISL 2018-19 squad
Goalkeepers: Karanjit Singh, Sanjiban Ghosh, Nikhil Bernard.
Defenders: Mailson Alves (c), Eli Sabia, Inigo Calderon, Jerry Lalrinzuala, Tondonba Singh, Laldinliana Renthlei, Zohmingliana Ralte, Hendry Antonay.
Midfielders: Raphael Augusto, Gregory Nelson, Andrea Orlandi, Francisco Fernandes, Thoi Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Germanpreet Singh, Srinivasan Pandiyan, Isaac Vanmalsawma, Bedashwor Singh, Zonunmawia.
Forwards: Carlos Antonio Salom, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Mohammed Rafi.
What to expect from Chennaiyin FC
Chennaiyin FC can be a formidable unit yet again as they are one of the few teams in the ongoing season to have retained the core from their title-winning season. Despite having let go of influential former captain Henrique Sereno.
Alves, who scored in last year's final, will lead the side and the backline, which has been Chennaiyin's strength under Gregory. Eli Sabia of Brazil returns to the side and he, along with Spaniard Inigo Calderon, is going to pivotal to the two-time champions' defensive discipline.
Italy's Andrea Orlandi joins Chennaiyin's highly-rated midfield that has Raphael Augusto and Dutch winger Gregory Nelson. All eyes will be Anirudh Thapa as the youngster will be expected to continue his good showing for the South Indian franchise.
Former FC Pune City midfielder Isaac Vanmalsawma, 21, is a solid addition to the Chennaiyin squad who will be well served if their local lads step up.
Meanwhile, Dhanapal Ganesh, the local star from last season, has reportedly been sidelined at least until December due to an injury.
Jeje, who played as the lone striker for the most part of last season, will have Argentina-born Palestine forward Carlos Salom for the company.
AFC Cup commitments for Chennaiyin
Chennaiyin FC are all set to feature in AFC Cup, Asia's second-tier continental tournament, for the first time in 2019. Gregory will have additional pressure as he needs to be spot on with squad rotation and workload as injury concerns can come as a big set back.
Three players to watch out for
Alves will be leading the team this season after having received a contract extension before the start of ISL 2018-19.
The Brazilian defender is a key member of Gregory's unit as he is solid at the back and as effective at the other end of the pitch. His brace against Bengaluru FC in last year's final was memorable and the 30-year-old will be hoping to continue his good run in the new season.
His aerial skills are a blessing to Chennaiyin, who showcased their expertise with set-pieces last season.
After breaking into the squad during Marco Materazzi's tenure, Thapa, 20, has certainly flourished into to a bankable midfielder under Gregory.
The youngster repaid the faith his coach showed in him by stepping up at crunch times, including the semi-final against FC Goa where he scored an important equaliser.
Having played 16 matches last season, Thapa will be hoping to seal his spot in the starting line-up this season. The absence of Ganesh provides the former Minerva Punjab star with a good opportunity to impress further.
Winger Nelson is going to key to Chennaiyin FC's success this season. The Dutchman proved his worth in their title-winning campaign last year as he had topped the assists charts with five to his name.
Having signed a one-year contract extension, Nelson will be keen on continuing the good work.