Fans of the Indian Super League have been enraptured by international superstars like Elano Blumer or Luis Garcia, players they could not even dream of seeing on Indian soil. South Americans and Europeans lead their teams out match after match and capture all the headlines, but the Indian Super League would not be what it is without standout performers from the host nation.

Since most foreigners are past their prime, the onus is on the Indian players to provide industry, physicality and running. Mostly playing supporting role to the marquee men but also coming up with world class displays themselves, here are 5 Indian players who went toe to toe withAi??international footballers and made the nation proud in the ISL’s premier season.

Sandesh Jhingan- Defender, Kerala Blasters FC

Kerala Blasters’ lanky defender Sandesh Jhingan is the best Indian outfield player in the ISL by a mile. The 21 year old’s star is on the rise after putting in brilliant defensive displays and shutting out some of the best strikers in the league.Ai??At 188 cm, Jhingan uses all of his imposing frame to win physical battles. Along with the height, he also has great acceleration. In fact, the combination of speed, heading ability, and above all, textbook tackling make him the perfect defender. With 36 tackles to his name, he is 5th bestAi??tackler in the league.

Although a central defender by trade, Jhingan’s physical attributes, two-footedness and calmness in possession mean he has been deployed mostly as a full back on either flank. He has managed to chip in with 17 crosses and 1 assist even though his mentality is more defensive than a traditional full back.

The India Under-23 International’s best performances came home and away versus Delhi Dynamos. The partnership of Cedric Hengbart and Jhingan stood firm to thwart Del Piero and Junker, who looked nowhere near scoring in both matches.

Whenever an opponent has raced clear of the other defenders, Jhingan is on the cover, sliding in heroically to stop attacks dead in their tracks. Coming through in last ditch situations, coupled with his versatility make him the standout Indian player in the league.

TPAi??Rehenesh – Goalkeeper, NorthEast United FC

“Don’t forget about our 21 year old goalkeeper who nobody in the world knew about before the ISL.”

These were the words of NorthEast United manager Rikki Herbert when asked who his best players were. Despite being bottom of the table, the Highlanders have held their own with spirited performances. Nobody embodies this statement more than the youngster from Kerala. All those 1-0 losses could have been a lot worse were it not for Rehensh’s heroic saves, sharp reflexes, and most of all, his judgement of situations. Pundits and fans alike have been left wondering how this young man knows exactly when to rush out and sweep up through balls!

Despite conceding 10 goals in 11 matches, it would take a brave man to point his finger at Rehenesh. A mammoth 77.77% shots saved percentage and 5 clean sheets speak for themselves.

Subrata Paul has been excellent in some matches, horrendous in others. Rehenesh, on the other hand, has been a consistent and reliable shot-stopper. The fact that Alexander Tzorvas, Greece’s goalkeeper in the 2010 World Cup, has lost his place to this unknown wonderkid is testament to Rehenesh TP’s outstanding abilities.

Romeo Fernandes- Winger, FC Goa

FC Goa's Romeo Fernandes

FC Goa’s Romeo Fernandes

20 days ago, FC Goa were bottom of the table and rock bottom on confidence. Fast forward and you’ll find that Goa are already into the Semis, Zico is happy and Indian star Romeo Fernandes is supposedly on his way to Atletico Paranaense of Brazil! Goa have gone on a magical winning run to turn their season around thanks to inspired displays by the likes of Andre Santos, Miroslav Slipecka and local boy Romeo Fernandes.

Playing as a right winger whose main job is to stretch play, Romeo’s performances in the second half of the season have been top class. In just 9 matches, he has become the most prolific Indian attacker in the league with an impressive haul of 3 goals, 2 assists and 25 crosses. His playing style is very direct and energetic- he likes to dribble and can beat players for raw pace. He also plays quick one-twos in and around the box to create goal-scoring chances.

Romeo was simply unstoppable in the past week against NorthEast United and Pune City FC. The combination of Mandar Rao Desai and him running at defenders from both flanks wrecked havoc as their team won big.Ai??It is perhaps fitting that the man from Margoa scored the 100th goal of the ISL to put the icing on the cake that was Goa’s rise from the bottom.

Arnab Mondal- Defender, Atletico de Kolkata

Only two words are needed to describe Arnab Mondal- rock solid. Arnab has been the heart and soul of the ATK defence, becoming a fan favourite and forming a formidable partnership with ex-Liverpool man, Josemi. The duo form the foundation of Antonio Habas’ system built on defensive solidity and have not missed a single minute of the action, keeping 5 clean sheets in 13 matches.

Strong, composed and tactically aware, Mondal is the ideal centre back. At his best, he reads the game like a book, sweeping up through balls and marking forwards out of games at ease.

His performances have remained amazingly consistent throughout, even as his teammates have dropped the ball recently after their flying start. If one can point to any one standout performance, it has to be the shutout against NorthEast United at home, when he completely nullified Koke and co.

Francis Fernandes- Forward, Delhi Dynamos

Francis Fernandez: A key Player for Salgaocar

Francis Fernandes, was also a key player for Salagaocar

Maybe not as dramatic as FC Goa, but Delhi Dynamos have risen out of a slump of their own and into fourth place due to a tactical masterstroke from Harm Van Veldhoven. The manager transformed Francis Fernandes, a traditional winger, into a false-9 who drifts to the wings and drags defenders out of position to create space for the wide forwards, Gustavo Dos Santos and Mads Junker, to make direct runs into central areas. This solved Delhi’s poor chance creation problems and lead to some beautiful football.

Francis is literally central to this tactic. Although played as a striker for the national team before, Delhi’s most expensive Indian draft has adapted shockingly fast to the specialist role. After sub-par performances as a winger, a change in position has lead to a change in fortune for both him and his team. The 29 year old has bagged 3 assists in the last 4 matches. His combination with Dos Santos almost single-handedly inspired the team to victories against NorthEast and Mumbai.

Francis’ work rate, tactical understanding and unselfishness mean he is the ideal player to lead Delhi’s charge for 4th place. So perfectly has he fit into his new role, he rounds off the list of the best Indian players in the ISL.

With new hidden gems discovered, established reputations solidified and tactical understanding developed, not to mention the previously unheard of experience of training with World Cup level players, it is fair to say that the ISL has been a success for all Indian footballers involved. With subsequent seasons, things can only get better and better. Who knows, European teams could poach some of these youngsters and make them global icons. It is certain, however, that the Indian national team selectors have their work cut out with all the new players bursting onto the scene.

*****

Written byAi??Guest Author Chaitanya Joshi

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