KOZHIKODE: Last year's early exit pangs still lingering, Kerala face Puducherry in opener
The objective for head coach V P Shaji and players of the Kerala football team as they take the field against Puducherry in the South Zone qualifiers of 71st Santosh Trophy at the EMS Corporation Stadium on Thursday will be, first and foremost, to bury the demons of their previous campaign.
The five-time champions had failed to qualify for the finals from the qualifying group constituting Tamil Nadu and Telangana in the last year's national football championship at Chennai. The resultant wound is still fresh in the minds of players and fans alike.
"Every year, Kerala are tipped to win the trophy. But the qualifying stage is a very tricky hurdle. There is no room for any error whatsoever," said Shaji on the eve of the match. "So, we have to first make sure that we are in the final round," he added.
Kerala have had 45 days of preparatory camp at Thiruvananthapuram and arrived here on Saturday. They played Army XI, Kannur in a practice match on Tuesday and beat them 8-0. But Shaji feels the lack of match experience is a cause of concern.
Kerala will bank on captain Usman P and Joby Justin, who were on the scoresheet against Army XI, for goals from the front. "It is always great to play in front of your own supporters. It will definitely be an advantage to us," said captain Usman.
"Most of the players in the squad have played relatively fewer matches this season. Therefore, we wanted to play more teams but it did not happen," Shaji said. But he feels same is the case with Puducherry, an unknown quantity for Kerala ahead of the opener.
Puducherry skipper K Sukumaran is optimistic. "Kerala are hosting the tournament and hence have a huge advantage. They have always done well in Santosh Trophy. But my team are here to win matches and will give a tight competition to our opponents," Sukumaran said.
Puducherry failed to register a single point in the qualifying round last season and conceded a whopping 20 goals from three matches while scoring once. But Kerala coach Shaji is not taking anything for granted.
"In football, any team can beat any other team on their day. We want to get all three points, but it also important to score as many goals as possible," said Shaji. Having had the ignominy of getting knocked out from the tournament on goal difference last season, Kerala will surely know.
Change in match timings
The kickoff times of the Santosh Trophy south zone qualifiers have been advanced to 1.45 PM and 4 PM from the earlier announced timings of 2.30 PM and 4.30 PM.
Kerala's opener against Puducherry will now kick off at 4 PM while Karnataka face Andhra in the 1.45 PM game. Hosts' matches against Andhra and Karnataka on January 7 and 9 respectively will also kickoff at 4 PM.