Kerala must be ruing the number of gilt-edged chances missed by their forwards as Services held their nerve in a dramatic penalty-shootout to prevail 4-3 in the 67th Santosh Trophy at the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium here on Sunday. Even as a splendid performance from goalkeeper Jean Christian kept the hosts in the game time and time again, his prodigal teammates in attack kept squandering the opportunities that came their way.
It is to the great credit of Services that they absorbed all the pressure and kept playing their passing game with composure. Despite their being no goals from open play, the PS Sumesh-led side played their part in making the final the most entertaining and the most fast-paced game of the event. The boisterous fans in the near capacity stadium were thoroughly engrossed in the riveting encounter that went right to sudden death before the champion was decided.
Striker Usman P missed a glorious opportunity to nail Kerala’s sixth national title in the 19th minute of extra time. He was barely four yards from the goal line when he connected C Nazarudheen’s cross from the right. Unfortunately, the shot was directed straight at the keeper who was absolutely at the Kerala players’ mercy. Skipper Rahul P and Shibin Lal too messed up opportunities to score. The Services keeper Nano Singh also made a few top class saves to hold off the hosts. Earlier, the final got off to a lightning start with the fans creating an electric atmosphere. Attacks and counter attacks flowed in the first 15 minutes. For once, the Kerala midfield duo of skipper Rahul and Shibin Lal raised their game and won a greater number of balls in midfield to keep their strikers Usman and Kannan busy. Usman, in particular made darting runs along the inside channels to stretch the Services defence. A clearly half-f0t Kannan though was a shadow of the player with the deftest of touch, as seen in the previous matches.
The pace of the attacks also resulted in a few mistakes at either end.
The pairing of T Sajith and Sarath BT, playing in the absence of Sherin Sam, looked shaky as the creative Services midfield, anchored by Dipak Shrestha and ZV Zorin, threaded a few passes through the heart of the Kerala defence. The reigning champions cleverly slowed down the game and managed to break Kerala’s rhythm quite often.
The best chance for Services fell to Dhanji Singh in the 82nd minute after he was released inside the box with a chipped pass by Lalremnieng Mawia. But his shot brilliantly saved by Jean, faced with a one on one situation. Services striker V V Farhad, who missed the final with an injury, Kerala’s Kannan and Punjab’s Prem Kumar were the leading scorers with four goal each.