These defenders have been solid at the back.

If it’s proven anything over its history, the Indian Super League (ISL) has shown that having a strong defence can benefit any team. So far, there have been four separate winners across the eight editions. Most have been able to win because of their solid defensive record.

As the saying goes, ‘an attack can win you matches, but a good defence wins you titles.’ At the heart of that defence are the centre-backs, arguably the most important part of it. The ISL has given the spotlight to some commendable centre-backs over the years.

While teams tend to depend mostly on physical, technical foreign ones, some promising Indian centre-backs have also emerged. But, only a handful of players have truly stood a class apart from the many centre-backs that have participated in the ISL. With that being said, we look at the top five centre-backs in the history of the ISL.

5. Lucian Goian

Lucian Goian in action at Chennaiyin FC. (Courtesy: CFC Media)

Despite not winning the ISL with them, Lucian Goian will still be remembered as a Mumbai City legend. The Romanian centre-back was brought in by the Islanders in 2016. He came in with the experience of playing for the likes of CFR Cluj and Dinamo Bucharest in his career. Goian proved to be worth every penny, being an unrelenting warrior at the back for Mumbai. He holds the record for most appearances, tackles and interceptions made for them. He spent three seasons with the Islanders, becoming the first foreigner in the club’s history to do so. Undoubtedly, he left a mark at the club.

Goian joined Chennaiyin FC in 2019. The Romanian went on to enjoy a solid season with the Marina Machans, helping them go to the finals. In 70 appearances across four seasons, Goian averaged 4+ tackles, 8+ clearances and 2+ interceptions per game. With his commanding nature, impressive game-reading and crunching challenges, he scripted a fearsome reputation among attackers.

4. Henrique Sereno

Former Real Valladolid and FC Porto centre-back, Henrique Sereno lifted two Indian Super League (ISL) titles with two different franchises, making him among the first few to achieve this feat. The Portuguese arrived in the ISL with ATK FC in 2016 and helped them to the title. He scored just once in 10 matches for the now defunct franchise. However, it was a crucial equaliser in the final against Kerala Blasters that helped ATK FC take the match into penalties and win it from there.

Sereno also represented Chennaiyin FC, having signed for them in the immediate next season following his title win with ATK. He captained the Marina Machans to their second ISL trophy. Sereno appeared 18 times that season for the John Gregory-coached side and made season-high 30 interceptions apart from 16 blocks and 52 tackles. His calm presence and robust defending was vital to both teams lifting the ISL title. With Sereno leading their defence, ATK conceded just 14 goals, joint second lowest that season. The following season Chennaiyin FC conceded the third-lowest goals (19) en route to the title.

3. Tiri

While he didn’t make his debut in the competition’s first season, Tiri can still be recognized as an ‘ISL original.’ That is because he has competed in every single ISL season barring the first one. After spending his first two years with ATK, he played three seasons with Jamshedpur FC and then joined ATK Mohun Bagan in 2020. In his seven seasons in the Indian Super League, Tiri has developed a reputation of being a consistent figure.

Not just with his defensive contribution, but the Spaniard’s expert passing ability and vision make him an asset. He has made 110 appearances in the ISL, more than any other foreign player in its history. In those, he has made 828 clearances, 232 tackles and 142 interceptions – as well as maintaining a 75.11% passing accuracy.

In those seven seasons, he bullied some of the league’s best attackers and saved his team from trouble time and again. While the Spaniard is likely to miss the upcoming season because of injury, he remains one of the most iconic players in the ISL.

2. Sandesh Jhingan

Sandesh Jhingan during a training session at ATK Mohun Bagan. (Courtesy: ATKMB Media)

Sandesh Jhingan was properly introduced to the Indian football fans thanks to the ISL. The centre-back started out as a 21-year-old for Kerala Blasters in the inaugural season and never looked back. He won the first-ever ISL Emerging Player of the Season award after putting in some commendable performances. Jhingan played for Kerala for six seasons, being a runner-up with them twice.

Throughout the ups and downs, the Indian international maintained a high level of performance and bullied many strikers. In 2020, he joined ATK Mohun Bagan and featured in two seasons for them. Between that, he enjoyed a small spell at HNK Sibenik as well. Jhingan’s ability to make clutch challenges has helped him shine for club and country over the years. In 107 ISL appearances, Jhingan has averaged over six clearances and two tackles per game.  

He has put in some commendable performances and maintained impressive consistency as well. Unfortunate for Jhingan, it has been a case of ‘always the bridesmaid and never the bride’ when it comes to winning the ISL – as he has finished as runners-up thrice in the eight seasons.

1. Mourtada Fall

A Hulk-like figure who has haunted ISL strikers for many years, Mourtada Fall has thrived in the environment of the league. The Senegalese centre-back was roped in by FC Goa in 2018 under the guidance of Sergio Lobera. What makes Fall stand out from the rest is not just his physicality.

The defender is also really impressive with his distribution and technical aspects as well as having the raw power to bully players. The Senegalese is also a massive threat from set-pieces, having scored 16 career goals in the ISL. Over his four seasons in the competition, he has made himself one of the most decorated foreign players in its history. Fall won the ISL Shield with FC Goa in the 2019/20 season as well as the Super Cup. He then moved to Mumbai City with Lobera in 2020, enjoying success there too.

The centre-back played a key role in ensuring Mumbai City’s success in winning both the league championship and ISL playoffs in his debut season. In 81 ISL appearances, the 34-year-old has made 607 clearances and 192 tackles as well as maintaining a brilliant 85.49% passing accuracy! Fall is arguably the most dominant, technically adept centre-back to have graced the ISL so far.

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