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Champions Kerala ready for gutsy Services

Imphal: Four-time champions and holders Kerala show a brave face, but coach M. Peethambaram knows deep inside that he has a tricky job at hand when his team takes on Services in the first semi-final of the 58th national football championship for the LG Santosh Trophy Friday.

Not that Kerala have any dearth of talent, vis-à-vis their rivals, but the sheer guts that the Services players have shown in this championship so far, does demand respect. Peethambaram says “we will win” with great pride, adding asides, “they are a good team.”

Services supremo Lt Col Joy Chatterjee feels his is a winning combination and there’s pride to protect. “We are sure of ourselves,” says the suave colonel. Coach T.K. Mazumdar, who was a player when Eastern Command played in the Calcutta league under the coaching of Adhip Majumdar, echoes similar sentiments.

As holders, Kerala moved into this championship from the quarter final stage, and stunned Bengal 3-2 in a keen tussle, before beating Assam 2-1.

Services, on the other hand, have driven up the rough, qualifying from group B. Their victories were pretty eye-popping, so to say — whipping Uttar Pradesh 5-0, with striker Pritam Bahadur scoring the first and till now the only hattrick of the meet, before beating Sikkim 3-0.

That saw them top group and into quarters where they beat Railways 2-0 before sharing two goals with Maharashtra. While the journey was long, there were two aspects to this route — they have seen a good deal of the teams, but then they also saw mostly the weaker teams. Kerala are a rather different proposition.

Pethambaram agrees striker Pritam Bahadur and Bikash Gurung would be watched — “a zonal marking case” — while Chatterjee is sure there is need to follow the activities of Kerala’s attacker T. Asif Shaheer and the usually second-half substitute T. Usman. Not that India team player K. Ajayan can be ignored either.

Probably what does crease Chatterjee’s and Mazumdar’s brows is the defence. This has remained a problem spot, and adding to that was the fact that L. Angam, who has been doing a good job, is injured. His prognosis wasn’t too good at this morning’s practice, but the final decision on him will be taken only Friday. This is important, especially in view of the fact that the team to be taken on Friday has a great many guns to fire from.

Kerala have a mix of fresh talent and experience. Players like V. Suresh Babu and S. Ignatious do add weight, and the speed of playmaker Ajayan supplements. That is nemesis of the Services defence. While their players have speed, their recovery rate could be better. Usman has a one-half energy store, and the coach uses this to effect.

With Kerala Police having disinvested their soccer interests, there is none from that organisation in this team. There are seven from State Bank of Travancore, two from Titanium and two from Kerala State Electricity Board.

The problem is that the rest are all students, hardly full time players. That is where Services can score. “Ours is a divisional side, playing for pride,” says Chatterjee. “Maybe we can’t provide them with the luxury of a Calcutta professional, but we make it up with amenities and the immense pride in oneself. We are into the semi-finals after 18 years, and this time we’ll make our final entry, just watch.”

Not always have pride and good intentions the last say. That’s why you leave space for talent and sheer individual brilliance. The contrast of styles could be interesting to watch Friday.

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