KOZHIKODE: Not a thoroughly impressive display, but Kerala did enough to record a 3-0 win against minnows Puducherry to get their 71st Santosh Trophy campaign off to a winning start at the EMS Corporation Stadium here on Thursday.
It looked like Puducherry were in for a long day after Joby Justin opened the scoring for Kerala as early as the third minute. But far from opening the floodgates for Kerala, it turned out that the chances were at a premium as the hosts lacked in creativeness.
However, captain Usman P's brace in the second half coming in the 57th and 66th minutes made sure that Kerala, coached by former India international V P Shaji, did not slip up in the opening game of the south zone qualifiers in front of their own supporters.
Kerala began the game with U-21 players Ananthu Murali, Sahal Abdul Samad and Jishnu Balakrishnan in the midfield and it was from the latter's cross that Joby scored very early in the game. Playing behind Usman in Kerala's front two, the unmarked KSEB forward headed in the cross from the right wing.
Recovering from the early shock, Puducherry regained composure and tightened up in the defence. Kerala's only other chance of note in the first period was when Sahal blasted a close effort against the crossbar in the 24th minute.
With Kerala failing to get a grip of the game and score the decisive second goal, Shaji was growing frustrated on the touchline. But the lead was doubled in the 57th minute, thanks to an exquisite finish from Usman.
Centre back Lijo S took a long throw into the box from the left that was helped on the way by Joby's header. SBT forward Usman, with his back towards the goal, managed to connect the ball with a backheel finish.
Usman then scored his second as he stole the possession from a Puducherry defender and fired past the keeper P Daniel Rock to make it 3-0. It wasn't pretty, but three points in the bag will do for the Kerala boys.
Earlier in the day, Karnataka, who were tipped to give Kerala the closest fight in the Group A, fell to an unexpected defeat at the hands of Andhra Pradesh.
Skipper Vignesh Gunashekar put Karnataka ahead in the first half, but Andhra came back from behind to win, thanks to a penalty in either half that were converted by their captain Chandrasekhar T.