| Action at the Services goalmouth during the first Santosh Trophy semi-final in Imphal Friday. Picture by Eastern Projections
Imphal: Kerala fought their way into their seventh Santosh Trophy final on Friday afternoon, getting the better of a sprightly, if inexperienced, Services 3-2 at the Khuman Lampak main stadium. Quiet, empty stands witnessed the engrossing first semi-final of the 58th edition, in which Services took the lead and then came back at par, but failed to hang on and lost out in the endurance count.
Services took the lead in the ninth minute through Johny F. Gangmei only to see Kerala restore parity within three minutes via T. Asif Shaheer.
The holders broke through again in the 22nd minute, off Shaheer’s second strike, but Pritam Bahadur brought Services back in the game in the 69th minute. However, nine minutes later international K. Ajayan sealed the issue for Kerala.
The defending champions did expect a fight, as coach M. Peethambaran later put it. “We were expecting a good fight and a good fight it was,” he said.
On his side, Services manager Lt. Col Joy Chatterjee said he had lodged a formal protest regarding a goal disallowed and a red that he said should have been shown to Kerala goalkeeper T. G. Purushothaman for handling the ball outside the box. Such protests will be taken up later and should not affect the result. Shaheer was declared the Most Valuable Player of the match.
The basic difference between the two teams was class. That surely, but there was no denying the tremendous initiative the Services kids (average age 23) displayed.
The Kerala midfield, led by the experienced Suresh Babu was the key to their attacks and, in ability, far outstripped the Services half line. However, what Services lacked in technique, they made up through sheer determination.
It was off one such determined move that the first goal came — after a couple of misses on both sides, Shaheer and Johny being the culprits. Services skipper Raghu Kumar got hold of a loose ball and loped up the left and, into the defensive third, square passed to Johny on the right.
Johny eased into the defence as K. Sameer tried a poor challenge. With the Kerala goalkeeper out it was easy for Johny to head in.
The reverse did not really bother the experienced Kerala outfit. It was a fine tuned half line they were depending on, and they knew if this was right then the front line would be fed well in time. Probably more worrying was the Kerala defence, as coach Peethambaran himself conceded.
Kerala were back in the attack quickly and as Shabeer Ali broke through, he passed to Shaheer at the goal mouth. The latter had all the time in the world to control before sending home a side-volley.
That put the Services defence line in the dock. Lt Col Chatterjee’s fears Thursday that the short stature of his defenders could prove his Achilles heel did come true. Not that they did not try, but they often found themselves in odd positions against the taller attackers. At the other end, another Johny shot came off from the Kerala goalkeeper’s person and the fight was kept alive.
The S. Ignatious-Abdul Noushad-Shaheer combination in the right was well-tuned. To Services’ credit, Pradeep Debnath and Raghu combined well, though it was the overlapping Bikash Gurung who took the fight over often.
Kerala tried the long ball to Services defence crowding and got results in the 22nd minute. A run up the right found Shaheer centering to the goalmouth from off the box and he was quickly into a reverse tuck, sending home a fine back volley. A timely goal, well executed.
In the 37th minute a free-kick by Anish Sharma from the right touch line went over to the Kerala goalmouth. Pritam Bahadur shot fast, from the top of the box, and even with ’keeper Purushothaman out of charge, K. Bineesh made a goalline save. It looked an okay save from a distance, though Lt. Col Chatterjee contested later that the ball had crossed the goalline before Bineesh pulled it back.
Kerala were in a spot again in the 43rd minute when a flurry of Services shots were all saved by the goalkeeper and in goalline efforts. It just wasn’t Services’ day.
The second half started rather lazily, though the tempo did pick up later. And soon enough Services had drawn level. Debnath’s free-kick from the left reached the goalmouth and a sharp Bahadur header saw the ball lodge into the netting.
Twelve minutes to time, Kerala were back. Ajayan collected a lose one around midfield and rushed in, unleashing a 22-yard volley that came off the right post and moved in.
KERALA: T.G. Purushothaman, K. Bineesh (V. Shiva Kumar, 73), Muhammad Shafeeq, Vinu Jose, K. Sameer, Suresh Babu (T. Usman, 65), K. Ajayan, T. Shabeer Ali (M. Boni Face, 70), S. Ignatious, Abdul Noushad, T. Asif Shaheer.
SERVICES: Abungobi Singh, Anish Sharma, Ignatious, S. Kar, Amit Aich, Bikash Gurung, Irduraj (L. Angam, 68), Johny F. Gangmei, Pradeep Debnath, Raghu Kumar, Pritam Bahadur.
Referee: S. Suresh.