The big boys have not come on stage yet but the coaches of last year’s Santosh Trophy semifinalists have been watching the teams closely, closely observing enterprising players and scribbling down little lines in their mind all the time.

The quarterfinal league phase of the 67th National football championship begins in Kochi and Kollam on Friday and now it’s time to look out for the frontrunners for the title.

Will it be Services, which lifted the Santosh Trophy after more than half a century in Cuttack last year? Or will Kerala be a king at home? And will Tamil Nadu do one better than last year’s silver despite the squabbling back home?

“The teams I’ve watched so far, even Bengal and Goa, are not up to the Santosh Trophy standard,” said Kerala coach M.M. Jacob, on the eve of his team’s opener against Jammu and Kashmir here, on Thursday. “In fact, Bengal was a lot better last year.”

Since the top four have not displayed their fancy footwork or shooting skills yet, Jacob has not decided where to put his money.

“Maharashtra had a lot of ONGC players last year but I don’t know how good the team is this time, though they have some very good players,” said the former international. “And Railways also doesn’t look up to the mark but Haryana looks better.”

But finally, Jacob did spill out his apprehensions about the one team he’s probably worried about.

“Services will be a good team, it looks strong,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Services coach Sajith Kumar said Kerala would be a favourite since it is playing at home.

“It will get a lot of support from the crowd,” he said.

Sajith, from Alappuzha, has a bit of Kerala in his side. Seven players in his team, including last year’s Santosh Trophy’s best player V.V. Farhad, are from Kerala. And he expects the crowd to back and cheer them too.

“But we will think of other things after we beat Railways…it is a team with good co-ordination,” he said, speaking about his first hurdle here.

Sabir Pasha, Tamil Nadu’s former international who is hunting for talent in Kollam and Kochi, offered a clear picture.

“Last year, nobody predicted Services to win the title and Tamil Nadu to enter the final,” he said. “This year also, we cannot predict the winner…now, everybody is the same.”

Keywords: Santosh Trophy

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