Meghalaya put the brakes on Kerala’s winning march in the Santosh Trophy with a thrilling 2-2 draw on Wednesday in what was a great endorsement for a competition that had lost some of its sheen thanks to the emergence of the I-League and the Indian Super League.
The game at the Manjeri Payyanad Football Stadium had everything. Capacity crowd, penalty miss, point-blank saves, gilt-edged opportunities and goals.
Despite being the overwhelming favourites, Kerala’s road to a seventh Santosh Trophy title
was always going to be riddled with tricky challenges. While Bino George’s side strolled to victory in the Group A opener against Rajasthan, the assignment against West Bengal was their first real test of the final round.
The 32-time champions pushed Kerala till the end, before two late goals helped the hosts get one step closer to the semifinal. However, their third game was against a brave and enterprising Meghalaya side who came into the game after a 3-2 win over Rajasthan.
If Kerala has been riding the wave so far thanks to their high-profile coach, electric home support, history to boot and solid performances, Meghalaya produced a performance that underlined why they are dark horses for the title.
With Punjab up next, this game took added significance as Kerala had the opportunity to secure a semifinal spot before going into their final game.
With games coming every alternate day, it was also an opportunity to settle matters early and rest the key players before the knockouts came around. However, Meghalaya proved to be a tricky customer as they matched Kerala’s intensity and had a clear game plan against the hosts.
As Kerala dominated possession, Meghalaya kept hitting them on the counter. After the early exchanges, Kerala took control of the game, and predictably, it was skipper Jijo Joseph who was running the show. Even though the Kerala star missed a second-half penalty, he is the heartbeat of Bino’s midfield engine.
It is safe to say that Kerala’s chances of winning their ninth Santosh Trophy title rests largely on their talismanic captain. Such was his influence in the first half.
Kerala enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and was targetting Meghalaya’s fullbacks, especially their left-back. And Nijo Gilbert with his pace and trickery helped them open the scoring.
After mazing his way towards the byline, Gilbert delivered a pinpoint low cross into the box for Muhammed Safnad to convert the easiest of tap-ins.
Kerala looked vulnerable on the counter and Meghalaya found a way back into the game when Kynsaibor Lhuid headed in an early cross from the right as both sides went into half-time level at 1-1.
Early into the second half, Jijo had a chance from the penalty spot, only to blaze his shot over. Meghalaya then went on to take the lead as Figo Syndai scored in the 55th minute.
On the backfoot, Kerala upped their intensity and the response was almost immediate with Saheef poking a ball into the box by Arjun Jayaraj as goalkeeper Frolicson Dikhar was caught by surprise.
The hosts pushed for a winner deep into stoppage time in the second half but Meghalaya’s defence held firm to deny them three points. Kerala are runaway group leaders in Group A, with 7 points from 3 matches. Meghalaya, Bengal and Punjab are tied at second spot with 4 points from 2 matches. The race to secure the second spot in the group will be among these three teams, all of whom have two matches remaining. In Group B, Odisha (4 points from 2 matches) are leading, followed by Manipur and Services.