Six former champions, a former runner-up and a rank outsider will spice up the contests when the quarterfinal league, to identify the two semifinalists, of the 67th Santosh Trophy football championships begins at the Lal Bahadur Stadium here on Friday.
Lightweights Jharkhand and Karnataka earned the right to stay back in Kollam after having won Cluster A and Cluster B respectively of the qualifying round early this week.
But Jharkhand, loaded with players from Tata Football Academy and SAIL Football Academy, is pitted against the likes of former champions Goa, Maharashtra and last year’s runner-up Tamil Nadu in Group B.
Jharkhand, which played well in patches, can take heart from its performance in the last league match against Nagaland which it won comprehensively. “It is a young team and we are learning. We have nothing to lose and it is a good opportunity for the boys to perform well,” said Jharkhand coach Mohammed Siddique.
Maharashtra finished second behind host Uttar Pradesh in the qualifying round in Varanasi. But former international and Maharasthra’s experienced player Mohammed Rafi was gung-ho and was not reading too much into the side’s performance in the qualifying round.
Rafi, who hails from Kerala, is looking to do well here in Kollam. He expects N.P. Pradeep, another former international, to come good in this tournament.
“As experienced players in the squad, we (Rafi and Pradeep) have to take additional responsibility. But we are enjoying it,” Rafi said.
“Goa even without its I-league stars is still a threat,” said Rafi and he reckons Tamil Nadu to be a strong side as well. “We have to be at our best. There will be no easy matches at this stage. We will have to click from the start,” he said.
The Tamil Nadu camp exuded quiet confidence and has left the controversies surrounding its participation behind. The team begins its campaign against Goa on Friday.
“We have a good team and we are confident of doing well,” said Tamil Nadu coach D. Shekaran.
Group D may be termed the group of death which pits four former champions — West Bengal, Punjab, Karnataka and Manipur — against one another.
Though Karnataka of late hasn’t done anything of note in the Santosh Trophy — which it won four times as State of Mysore — it is the form team here after having scored 20 goals in the qualifying round.
In S. Rajesh and V. Stephen, Karnataka has two good strikers who have struck 15 goals between them. They will be marked men in the matches to follow.
West Bengal, the 31-time winner, and last year’s semifinalist Manipur are no pushovers either. Though missing several key players, West Bengal and Manipur pack enough punch to make life difficult for other teams in their group.
Punjab has been impressive in qualifying and it has a history of punching above its weight in the Santosh Trophy. It is difficult to overlook Punjab’s capability as it takes on Manipur on Saturday.
With teams confident and with only one semifinal place up for grabs in each group, the quarterfinal league promises to be exciting and hopefully it will bring in more crowds.