Santosh Trophy: Bengal to clash with Services in semi-finals Wednesday

June 9th, 2009 - 3:27 pm ICT by IANS  

By Anand Philar
Chennai, June 9 (IANS) There will be no comebacks from here on as the semi-finals of the 63rd Football Championship for the Santosh Trophy get underway here Wednesday with 29 times champions Bengal taking on the Services in a repeat of last year’s clash.

Hosts Tamil Nadu would be matching wits with Goa in the second semi-final Thursday, that promises plenty of action and a lot for the local supporters to cheer for.

Bengal, a team without star players but boasting of youth and talent, have looked rather short in the striking zone, but yet, managed to get their act together after a rather tentative start to their campaign.

That Bengal still made it to the penultimate round speaks volumes for the depth in talent that is a reflection of their rich football legacy. Although they last won the title a decade ago, Bengal have been the perennial favourites if only for their enviable ability to get off the ropes and start punching like they did in the quarter-final league.

Their coach Raghu Nandy had admitted to the lack of sharpness in the forward line and this was underlined in Bengal managing just four goals in the league, three of them by Pachau Lalam Puia who time and again rescued the side with vital strikes.

In the semi-finals, Bengal, or for that matter all the teams, will not have the comfort of living to fight another day and should the multiple champions bend their backs a bit more upfront, then they will be the side to beat.

Their opponents, Services, just about scraped through after coming close to elimination. Indeed, luck favoured them in the crucial game against Karnataka that they won 1-0 on a dubious penalty and it compensated for the 0-1 loss to Goa in the previous encounter.

Services have scored the least goals among the four survivors in the run-up to the semi-finals and they need to be as sharp as they were last year against Bengal whom they beat 4-1 en route to the final where they eventually lost to Punjab.

The key Services striker, Sochungmi Raleng who scored a hat-trick against Bengal and emerged as the tournament’s highest scorer with 13 that also won him the “Best Player” award, has been rather off-colour this season, but if he gets back into groove, then Bengal defenders will have something to worry about.

However, a year on, Bengal have looked the better side and if they play to potential, then they will move a step closer to the 30th title.

Services though can take some inspiration from the fact that the last time they won the Santosh Trophy in 1961, they beat Bengal 1-0 in the replayed final after the first meeting had ended goalless.

The second semi-final Thursday, has the trappings of an exciting and close encounter with both Goa and Tamil Nadu looking sharp and strong with plenty of goals behind them to suggest that the clash could be an end-to-end game.

Tamil Nadu, after a rather shaky start to their quarter-final league campaign, got into flow against Manipur whom they routed 3-1. Playing on home turf provides them an excellent opportunity to score their maiden success in the championship in which they made it to the final just once, in 1973 when losing to Bengal.

For Tamil Nadu, their key players, Muthu and skipper Kulothungan, have been in good touch and on them will ride the team’s fortunes.

In contrast, Goa have won the trophy four times and reached the final on seven occasions. As such, they are into a far more familiar territory and the fact that they have been the most impressive side in the league should make them one of the top title contenders.

Both in defence and attack, the Goans have showcased their expertise with the midfield playing an excellent support role. Mahesh Gawli at the back, international Climax Lawrence in the middle and Beevan D’Mello and Marcus Mascarenhas in front have been the vital cogs in the Goan machine.

In the event, Tamil Nadu will have to up their level of performance to keep the Goans at bay, a task easier said than done. For sure, Tamil Nadu can count on partisan crowd support, but they will be battling history on one front and a resurgent Goa on the other.

Tomorrow’s fixtures:

1st Semi-final - Bengal vs Services (5.30 p.m.).

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