Punjab, Services strong contenders for Santosh Trophy

May 23rd, 2009 - 5:02 pm ICT by IANS  

Chennai, May 23 (IANS) History beckons 29-time champions Bengal ahead of the 63rd National football championship for the Santosh Trophy, commencing at four venues in Tamil Nadu from Sunday.
Matches will be played at Coimbatore, Tiruchirapalli, Thiruvallur and Chennai.

Bengal’s last triumph was in 1999 when they beat Goa 5-0 in the final in Chennai. Since then, Bengal have made it to the final just once, in Gurgaon two years ago when they lost to Punjab on penalties.

Bengal, semi-finalists last year, are clubbed with Punjab, the back-to-back champions, in the quarter-final league besides the two qualifiers coming through the preliminary competition involving 27 teams.

The other group includes last year’s runners-up Services, semi-finalists Karnataka and two qualifiers.

Punjab and Services, last year’s finalists, appear the strongest of contenders.

Over the years, the tournament has lost much of its gloss and pre-eminence in the context of Indian football while being overshadowed by the lucrative I-League. Also, with a surfeit of tournaments, the top players have not exactly been eager to participate in the National Championship despite the opportunity to represent their respective home states.

In this context, Bengal have been hit hard by the absence of their star players who have obviously put their club above the state and skipped the National Championship that not long ago was the highpoint of the domestic season.

Conversely, the tournament has proved to be the playground of several young and talented players, who made the best of the absence of established stars. Notable among these newcomers has been striker Sochungmi Raleng (Services) who emerged the top scorer last year with a tally of 13, including a brilliant hat-trick against Bengal in the semi-finals.

Meanwhile, the cluster matches to identify the four qualifiers for the quarter-final league is expected to be competitive if not of highest quality. Hosts Tamil Nadu, former champions Kerala, Maharashtra, Goa and the Railways are among the frontrunners for the four spots.

The quarter-final league will be held June 2-7, followed by semi-finals June 10 and June 11, and the final June 14. All the three matches will be played in Chennai.

Sunday’s fixtures (preliminary league):

In Coimbatore - Chattisgarh vs. Chandigarh (Cluster 1, 7 a.m.) and Kerala vs. Nagaland (Cluster 1, 4 p.m.)

In Tiruchirapalli - Jammu and Kashmir vs. Madhya Pradesh (Cluster 3, 7 a.m.); Mizoram vs. Pondicherry (Cluster 3, 4 p.m.)

In Thiruvallur - Railways vs. Delhi (4 p.m.)

In Chennai - Tripura vs. Himachal Pradesh (Cluster 8, 4 p.m.); Tamil Nadu vs. Rajasthan (Cluster 8, 6.30 p.m.)

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