FULL-TIME: Punjab 0-1 Services (61′ Bikash Thapa)
Services emerged victorious over Punjab to clinch the Santosh Trophy for the fifth time in eight years. The title today is the sixth in their history having won their first in the 1960-61 edition.
The Services team’s route to the final this year showcased their consistent performances in the tournament over the last few editions. They qualified for the final round from South Zone’s Group B – a group which had defending champions Kerala. Services beat Kerala to get passage to the final round.
The final round group stage was blemish-free for the Services team. They were undefeated in Group A and scored the most goals while managing to concede the least. They secured passage to to the semi-final against Karnataka as group winners.
In the semi-finals, Services edged it over Karnataka in the penalty shootout after the teams ended up at 1-1 after extra time.
Today’s match was the finale of the 73rd edition of the Santosh Trophy – the first ever Santosh Cup was held in 1941. And the start to the match between Services and the hosts Punjab was scruffy with a clutch of fouls on both sides in midfield hampering the pace of the game. An early substitution for Punjab due to injury saw Amandeep Singh replaced with Rajbir Singh.
Gradually, Services began to find their feet in the game and dominated possession. Their played from the back with the captain and centre-back Suresh Meitei confident on the ball. The midfielders Sushil Shah and the experienced Anoop Pauly helping them gain control of the game with the Army serviceman and right back Nithin the chief outlet of their attacks.
Punjab on the other hand looked to dispossess Services in midfield and threatened from crosses and corners. The left back Navjot’s runs threatened to bear fruit and Punjab managed to win a few corners in the first half. However, the threat was expertly handled by Suresh Meitei and Co.
Both teams were unable to deliver a telling final ball and a couple of shots Punjab had on goal were errant as the teams went into the first half break.
The early part of the second half saw Services gain a stranglehold on the game. Punjab sorely lacked in building up play and only created chances from dispossessing Services in midfield. A goal for Services looked to be in the offing and eventually a defensive error by the Punjab centre-back Harjinder Singh resulted in the away team taking the lead.
Some poor ball control by the defender in his own box found the ball in Bikash Thapa’s path. The Services forward who was electric going forward today slotted the ball past the keeper to put his team in the lead.
Trailing a goal, the home side immediately spurred into action. They dispossessed Services higher up the pitch and won a spate of corners, free kicks and throw ins. However, they couldn’t turn their height from set pieces into an advantage with centre-backs Harjinder Singh and Muhammad Asif kept in check by the excellent Suresh Meitei. Rajbir Singh who had come on as a sub was yanked off again – the forward line of Punjab today was largely ineffectual.
Punjab would come close to an equaliser on a couple of occasions. An attempt resulting from a set-piece was kept out of the net by the keeper Vishnu who used his finger tips to tip over the ball. The goal-keeper who was the star in his team’s penalty shootout win in the semis against Karnataka pulled off another great save – this time a shot from distance by Vikrant Singh towards the end of second half stoppage time.
As the match ended in favour of the Services, their defensive shape was crucial in helping them over the line – they never really looked like conceding from Punjab’s en masse attack in the second half.
For the hosts and eight-time champions Punjab, the loss today will evoke some bitter memories from the 2014-15 edition of the tournament. They lost to the same opposition on penalties in the Final – and the final was at home – the Guru Nanak Stadium in Ludhiana.