Meghalaya came from behind to defeat eight-time champions Punjab to reach the final for the first time while Karnataka made it to the final after 47 years following a 3-1 win over Services.
Santosh Trophy 2022-23, Semi-final 1: Punjab vs Meghalaya
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA: It was a historic match for Indian football, and it ended with a fitting goal. Sheen Sohktung’s 91st minute strike added a page to the glorious history of Meghalaya as well. They came from behind to beat eight-time champions Punjab 2-1 and advanced to the final of Hero Santosh Trophy for the first time, at King Fahd International Stadium here on Wednesday.
On a pitch where Cristiano Ronaldo scores his goals these days, Sheen shattered Punjab’s hopes at the start of stoppage time with a goal that would have made even the Portuguese legend happy. Getting the ball from strike partner Donald Diengdoh just outside the box, Sheen shot it like a bullet between two defenders and swung it past the diving Punjab goalie Shamsher Singh into the goal. It was a telling blow to Punjab, who, along with everyone present at the stadium were preparing themselves for the extra time.
The Punjab lads sank to their knees when the final whistle was blown but they were by no means the inferior side on the day. Manager Harjinder Singh could be as proud of his boys as his counterpart Khlain Syiemlieh is. This match was not just a simple semi-final for the National Championships. It was also the first time Indian football was showcasing its domestic talent pool in a country far ahead in terms of football infrastructure and international success. Both teams justified the faith shown by the All India Football Federation in flying them to Saudi Arabia and giving them perhaps the best pitch available in Asia to showcase their skills.
It was a tight and exciting game from start to finish. While the Meghalaya boys relied on a swift passing game, Punjab used their generally bigger physique to good advantage and stressed on counter-attacks. Nobody gave an inch away to the others and Punjab drew first blood in the 16th minute.
They capitalised on a small error by Meghalaya custodian Rajat Paul Lyngdoh. In dealing with Bhupinder Singh’s corner from the left flank, he fisted it out but not forcefully. It went to an area outside the box where none of his teammates were present. However, it was not an easy angle for Parmjit Singh, who unleashed a right-footed grounder towards the far post to make it 1-0.
Meghalaya did look a bit stunned by that goal because they had the upper-hand in the first few minutes of the encounter. They had kept Shamsher busy right from the second minute, when Donald’s through pass was almost deflected into his own goal by a Punjab defender. Shamsher dived to his left to avert the disaster.
Meghalaya could have still taken the lead in the sixth minute when Ronaldkydon Lyngdoh’s long-ranger was heading into the net. Shamsher had to throw himself in the air to get a hand. It still shook the crossbar before going out for a corner.
Punjab got their first chance in the very next minute. Jang Bahadur Singh got a cross from the right and though there was nobody to mark him, he could not find the mark with his header. However, even after making it 1-0, the former champions could not make the contest one-sided. Meghalaya stayed defensively solid and creative on the attack.
The equaliser finally came in the 37th minute. It was a brilliant execution of a set piece. Allen Lyngdoh, who played a stellar role right through the match, delivered a measured free-kick from the right wing towards the Punjab goal. Dawanchwa Carlos Challam headed it on to the other post. It seemed Figo Syndai had been stationed there for that moment, so calm was his demeanour in volleying it in with the left foot.
It was Punjab’s turn to freeze for a few seconds but they recovered quickly. Otherwise, Meghalaya would have taken the lead in first-half stoppage time itself. Sheen crossed from the left to the far post, which was headed on to the near post. But Gurtej Singh got his body in the way to thwart Donald from heading it into the goal.
Meghalaya custodian Rajat may have been guilty of giving Punjab the scope to go ahead in the first half, but he was like a rock in the second. He saved Kamaldeep Singh’s grounder from inside the box diving to his right. Five minutes later, Jang Bahadur got into the box from the left playing a wall pass with Kamaldeep and shot with his right foot. Rajat kept it out from point blank.
It was clear that every Meghalaya player was hell-bent on displaying a memorable performance on a memorable day for Indian football.
Santosh Trophy 2022-23, Semi-final 2: Services vs Karnataka
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA: Karnataka had always been one of the major football-playing states even before the country attained Independence. Over the years the state from southern India has produced a host of legendary footballers, who made India proud in international competitions.
Yet, the Hero Santosh Trophy, the symbol of supremacy in India’s domestic competitions, has somehow remained elusive to Karnataka for more than five decades now. The last time they reached the final was in the 1975-76 season and since then, they could never reach the title round.
Things, however, changed at the King Fahd International Stadium on Wednesday night. After Meghalaya made the final for the first time in history at the expense of eight-time champions Punjab, it was Karnataka’s turn to emerge as the worthy challengers in the final. In the second semi-final, Karnataka played forthright football against strong contenders Services and emerged 3-1 winners with goals from Robin Yadav, Ankith P and M Sunil Kumar.
It was an eventful match that was stretched over 100 minutes because of injuries and too many stoppages right from the start. But then, the match was virtually won and lost in the first session, or in its closing minutes, to be precise. The last six minutes of the first half remained highly eventful – it fetched three goals and a near miss that could have put Karnataka further ahead. It began with Services winger Bikash Thapa missing an easy chance in the 39th minute; he had all the time in the world to cut past the goalkeeper, which he duly did, only to be foiled by an onrushing defender Nikhil.
Just when everyone was wondering whether Thapa was actually the right man to avail himself of the opportunity, he produced a goal that was worthy of being scored at the great stadium. Off a corner kick, there was the usual melee inside the box and Thapa scored with a quick back-heal that caught the Karnataka defence completely off-guard. Probably to make his goal at the famous venue a memorable one, Thapa ran towards the bench and then broke into a Cristiano Ronaldo-like celebration, much to the delight of the photographers around.
The story of the first half, however, was far from over. It swung Karnataka’s way almost immediately, with Robin Yadav equalising off a free kick from around 25 yards. It wasn’t a stinging shot – the Yadav try of course had the necessary power, but more than that, it had the correct angle, which proved to be too much for Services custodian Bhabindra Malla Thakuri.
The Services goalkeeper, also the captain of the team, perhaps could have done better when Ankith P made it 2-1 for Karnataka in the 43rd minute. The ball was hovering around the Services box for some time with more than one square pass being played. Yet when Ankith found the target with a low shot, Thakuri didn’t seem to be as prepared as he was expected to be.
In the second half, just as it appeared that Services were desperate to make a comeback, Karnataka took the game away from them in the 77th minute with a goal scored by substitute M Sunil Kumar almost immediately after he came in. He latched onto a ball that came to him off a throw-in and then, like a smooth operator, he managed to get the ball past the Services goalkeeper.
Services will now face Punjab in the 3rd Place Match in Riyadh at 5.30 pm IST on Saturday, March 4, while the summit clash of the 76th National Football Championship for the Hero Santosh Trophy will be played between Meghalaya and Karnataka at 9 pm IST, at the same venue, on the same day.