• Mon. May 27th, 2024

Hero Santosh Trophy: The hits, the misses and the guesses in the race to Riyadh

Spreading the beautiful game across different states is one of the key objectives in Vision 2047, and the Federation has begun that process by taking the Hero Santosh Trophy to new heights. The-aiff.com is present in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, where the Final Round of the 76th National Football Championship for the Hero Santosh Trophy is taking place, to follow the progression of events in the premier state competition in the country.

 In four days, four teams will lock their spots as semi-finalists in the 76th National Football Championships for the Hero Santosh Trophy to be played in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, next month. A week of back to back games, in two groups has so far yielded no confirmations, with as many as eight teams still in the fray to make it through.

Group A is notoriously difficult to predict, with four teams in with a realistic chance to make it through. Goa have been knocked out of the competition, suffering three straight losses and conceding nine goals in the process. Maharashtra, who have two points, have an outside chance at making it through to the next round, provided they win both their remaining games and hope other results go their way.

 

The real drama though will come tomorrow, February 17, when Kerala take on hosts Odisha in a must win encounter for both sides. Both teams have performed identically till now – won one, lost one, and drawn one game so far. Odisha are in third place in Group A due to goal difference (courtesy their big win against Goa) and will hope to stay in the reckoning in their ‘home tournament’. The game will be played at the Kalinga Stadium tomorrow — a stage worthy of this fixture — and both teams know that anything less than a win will see them knocked out of the competition.

For table toppers Karnataka, and second placed Punjab, the odds are a little better. The duo played each other and split the points. Karnataka take on Maharashtra tomorrow well aware that a win will definitely see them through. A draw might well be enough, provided the game between Odisha and Kerala produces no result. A win for Odisha there would mean Karnataka will have to fight it out on the final day against the hosts. It’s much the same for Punjab. A win against Goa will get them within touching distance of the Riyadh line.

Group B, while not so closely fraught, is rife with possibilities of its own. Services rule the roost, their unbeaten record and the seven points virtually guaranteeing them a spot in the semi-finals. And yet, if it wasn’t for an injury time own goal against Delhi, they may well have already been booking their tickets to Riyadh.

For Delhi, that loss against Railways will hurt. That one result has left them looking in from the outside, their two points probably not enough to see them through to the next round, with tough games against Meghalaya and Manipur yet to come.

Manipur shrugged off their loss to Meghalaya and routed Bengal at the Kalinga stadium on Wednesday, knocking the 32-time winners out of the competition. For Bengal, this has been a tournament to forget. The National Games champions have been abject and poor in Bhubaneswar, conceding eight goals in their three games and picking up just the one point — in a draw against Delhi.

The big game of the group comes on February 18, at 0900 hrs, when Manipur take on Services at the 7th Battalion ground. For Services a point will do, but anything less than a win will put Manipur on shaky ground. Their surprise loss to Meghalaya means that they have a worse head-to-head record and if the two teams end up on 10 points each (Meghalaya need to win both their games for that) Manipur will miss out.

Meghalaya’s fixtures, arguably, are also kinder than Manipur’s. They face Delhi on February 18 and then West Bengal on February 20. Neither will be easy — both smarting from their wounds and keen to avoid the wooden spoon — but two positive results will put them in prime position to qualify. The problem for them is scoring goals. The team have so far scored just one goal in the competition, that too off a goalkeeping error against Manipur.

All in all, an exciting four days of action beckon. The gates of the King Fahd Stadium have opened its doors for the knockouts. Now it’s just a matter of who can hold their nerves and walk through

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