There are no firm favourites as the ONGC-sponsored 11th National Football League gets underway with inaugural champions JCT Mills and dark horses Mohammedan Sporting kicking-off the proceedings at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi on Friday afternoon.
The top five-six contenders are evenly balanced and equally capable of lifting the most prestigious pennant in Indian football though it would require a combination of inspiration, perspiration, endurance and luck to triumph in this five-month long odyssey.
Some grim and exciting battles are certainly lined up as the top dogs take on each other and some minnows in the months ahead.
Defending champions Mahindra United, previous titlists Dempo, Sporting Clube de Goa and three-time winners Mohun Bagan are joint-favourites this time around.
East Bengal, who have also triumphed thrice, have fallen back and will have to pull up their stockings literally to be in the running. Perhaps, the last-minute induction of some talented foreigners could resurrect the sagging fortunes of the Carlos Roberto Pereira de Silva-coached red and gold outfit.
The Mumbai jeepmen have an abundance of home-grown riches -- India No 1 goalkeeper Sandip Nandy, player-of-the-year Surkumar Singh, Mahesh Gawli, N P Pradeep, Manjit Singh and Steven Dias -- but need to add two top-quality foreign recruits to complement their wily frontman Yusuf Yakubu for assured returns.
"I am very confident of my team. We have the most balanced side and some great individual talents. But we must play to our potential and reproduce our game to get results," Mahindra United coach Derrick Pereira, a classy central defender in his time, told rediff.com on Thursday.
The two Goan outfits, which have been fielding the same set of players for the past 2-3 seasons, are well-knit combos as a result. However, big-budget Dempo have the better spread of resources between the two.
"I fancy Sporting Clube de Goa this year. They have displayed remarkable consistency and have been combining well," averred former international Godfrey Pereira, voted player-of-the-NFL in the inaugural edition, 1996-97.
Mohun Bagan, shepherded by physical trainer-turned-coach Robson Mattos, another Brazilian, will depend on the playmaking abilities of the iconic Jose Ramirez Baretto and thrust of Baichung Bhutia to deliver the goods. The stability of Fabio Cortez Vidal in midfield and the rough-and-ready methods of Eduardo Coelho in defence, more Brazilians, will also count.
The top clubs have already managed to collect some silverware this season: Mahindra United have bagged the IFA Shield, Dempo the Durand Cup, Mohun Bagan the Federation Cup and Sporting Clube and East Bengal their respective local league titles.
State league champions JCT Mills can further take heart from the fact that Punjab wrested the Santosh Trophy a few months ago. But, sure, they covet this big one the most.
As for the other contenders, a rejuvenated Mohammedan Sporting will have a point to prove under the impetuous Subhash Bhowmick. They, along with the Phagwara outfit and battling Air-India, will be tough to beat on home turf while possessing the unpredictability to pull off a few upsets in away games.
Promoted Churchill Brothers, who are enjoying a resurgence under their highly-rated Moroccan coach, Karim Bencharifa, will be watched closely. They finished second thrice earlier and will again pose a strong challenge through their quality African strikers, George Ekeh and Odafe Okolie.
The other promoted side, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, who replaced actual qualifiers Tata Football Academy at a belated hour, will find survival a tough proposition. As the weakest side on paper, predictably, their priority will be to avoid relegation.
Air-India too have similar preoccupations, given that they have hired two African central defenders to man their citadel.
More than collective strengths and combined moves of the various contenders, 'le jogo bonita' is all about individual brilliance and goals. The past NFLs have witnessed some sterling feats and spectacular goals from the boots of Bhutia, Raman Vijayan, Philip Mensah, Igor Shivkyrin and Cristiano Jr, among others.
It is incumbent on this edition's teeming talents like Bhutia, Barreto (Mohun Bagan), Beto, Ranty Martins (Dempo), Yakubu, Manjit Singh (Mahindra United), Dudu Omagbemi (Sporting Clube de Goa), Alvito D'Cunha (East Bengal) and Chidi Edeh (JCT Mills) to unveil their magic all over again and provide another memorable feast of football for Indian fans.