The host beat Maharashtra 2-1 in extra time
He had not stood out during the last three games here. And despite being in the starting eleven, one found central midfielder V.K. Shibin Lal being substituted early quite frequently in the quarterfinal league matches.
But on Thursday night, the 23-year-old SBT player — who replaced R. Kannan as striker towards the end of the first half — turned out to be Kerala’s hero in the 67th Santosh Trophy National football championship at the Nehru Stadium.
Shibin Lal’s match-winner towards the end of extra time helped Kerala defeat Maharashtra 2-1 and enter the final after eight years.
The teams were level 1-1 at the end of the regulation period with goals coming from Kerala’s P. Usman (off a 55th-minute penalty), and Maharashtra’s R. Lalrempuia (a long-ranger in the 71st).
Kerala will fight it out with the winner of Friday’s second semifinal between defending champion Services and Punjab, on March 3.
Shibin’s goal caught Maharashtra by surprise. He took a lovely pass from substitute Ahmad Malik and before the defenders could react, scored with a solid right-footer.
Maharashtra equalised in the 71st minute when midfielder Lalrempuia’s curling long-ranger beat the goalkeeper Jean Christian hollow.
Maharashtra looked a strong combination with its former internationals N.P. Pradeep and Mohammed Rafi in fine touch. But it suffered a huge blow in the first half when its star striker Rafi had to be withdrawn following a hamstring problem.
The home side gained a huge advantage as the striker had been in prolific form, scoring four goals including a hat-trick. But the host’s opening goal came off a penalty, after a Maharashtra defender was penalised for handball in a goalmouth melee, in the 55th minute. Usman converted the penalty to send the 15,000-strong crowd roaring in delight.
Kerala was without its captain P. Rahul. His replacement Nasirudheen did not last long, leaving shortly after the half-hour mark with an injury.
The absence of key players showed on the pitch as the host misplaced quite a few passes. The Maharashtra players used the opportunity and found space in the centre, but they were woefully bad in the final third. The Kerala defence, manned by captain and right-back V.V. Surjith, left-back Johnson and central defenders Sajith and Sherin Sam, kept the rival boys in check impressively.
Correction: The headline for the Santosh Trophy report which appeared in these columns on February 28, should have read ‘Services enters semifinal…’ and not as published.
The result (semifinal): Kerala 2 (P. Usman 55-pen, Shibin Lal 118) bt Maharashtra 1 (R. Lalrempuia 71).
Friday’s match: Second semifinal: Services v Punjab.