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West Bengal, Kerala to lock horns for final glory

KOLKATA: Champions West Bengal will clash swords with Kerala in the finals of the 72nd Santosh Trophy as the former beat Karnataka 2-0 while the latter overcame the challenge from Mizoram whom they squeezed past by a solitary goal in the semifinals played in Kolkata on Friday.

After being toothless in the first half, an inspired substitution saw super sub Afdal VK score the winner for Kerala and leave them with a chance of lifting the Santosh Trophy championship for the first time in five years.

Both teams had strong outings the group stages and both having not qualified for the finals in almost four years, it was all to play for. Mizoram began the game with a much more cautious system by playing with a stacked midfield and Kerala’s slow start approach to the game allowed them to be on the attack.

Mizoram had pushed Kerala’s backs to the walls and were threatening through the right-wing and sent in many dangerous crosses from that side, while Lal Romawia’s darting shot in the 14th minute forced a strong save from Midhun. It was Mizoram’s organised system and packed midfield which made it almost impossible for Kerala to penetrate them and extra cover at the wings made it difficult for stars Rahul KP and Jithin MS to do anything good either.

In what was a cagey first half, Mizoram were much more dominant and almost scored in the latter stages, when Laldinpuia’s header and Lalbiakhlua’s powerful attempt almost gave Midhun a nightmare. The Kerala side, who had till now scored the most goals in the tournament, looked toothless in the attack in the first period and went into the break in dire need of a different game-plan.

Kerala looked revitalised in the 2nd half and a terrific substitution from the coach to bring in Afdal VK inspired them to take more risks and ask questions of Mizoram’s defense. It seemed inevitable that the super-sub would do something and so he did when he put his side into the lead in the 54th minute when Mizoram were caught napping and a spectacular pass allowed Jithin MS to make a darting run into the middle and Afdal latched onto his ball to give his side a shocking lead.

Mizoram brought on all their attacking players on the bench and huffed and puffed to get the equaliser, but poor decision-making was being their bane and allowed Kerala to waste through the minutes and deservedly win the match.

In the other semifinal, skipper Jiten Murmu and Tirthankar Sarkar scored in the 57th and 90+2nd minute respectively for Wst Bengal.

Bengal started as the better side but not before long, Karnataka took control of the game. Bengal Head Coach Ranjan Chowdhury deployed Jiten Murmu and Bidyashagar Singh upfront but the duo didn’t have much of an impact in the first 45 minutes.

In the 17th minute, Sukesh Leon of Karnataka hit the woodwork with a header that took Bengal’s goalkeeper, Ranajit Majumder by surprise. The young shot-stopper then followed with two great saves to keep Bengal into the game.

Meanwhile, Bengal had a close chance of their own in the 36th minute through Sumit Das, who covered a lot of ground after getting the ball from midfield but the winger could not keep his effort on target from inside the box. Five minutes later, Bengal had another opportunity but Jiten’s header went wide.

Towards the end, Karnataka made two significant attempts through S. Rajesh and Sukesh, but both efforts produced nothing as the first half ended goalless.

Changing over, both teams seemed keen to make an early impression, but it was Bengal who secured the all-important opening goal in the 57th minute though Jiten. Sumit’s fierce effort was palmed away by Karnataka keeper Shaikhan CP but Jiten was at the right place at right time to slot home from the rebound.

Despite the goal, or perhaps because of it, the match continued to be played on a high tempo. Free-kicks from wide areas for Bengal continued to be an outlet towards the goal as the hosts dominated two thirds of possession in the second half.

Meanwhile, Karnataka also pushed hard for a late equaliser, Shamanth Dodda joined Rajesh in the forward line but Karnataka could find no way through an imperious defence and it was Bengal who looked more likely

to score.

Thereafter, Bengal continued to dominate proceedings but had to wait till additional time to get their second. Jiten with a brilliant run on the right got past his marker but was brought down on the edge of the box when he was about to pull the trigger, which earned Bengal a free-kick and Tirthankar made no mistake to put the ball into the back of the net to confirm Bengal’s place in the final.

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