Shillong, Mar 4: The finish line is almost in sight. The Santosh Trophy’s grand finale will see Meghalaya seek ultimate glory as they clash with Karnataka in the final of the Men’s Senior National Football Championship final in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, today.
Kick-off will be at 9PM Indian time. It can be watched in India on DD Sports, through the online app Fancode and on the Indian Football channel on YouTube. Giants screens are also being put up in various parts of Meghalaya for fans.
Karnataka are in the final for the first time since 1975-76 while and Meghalaya will make their maiden appearance in the summit clash.
Speaking media on the eve of the match, Meghalaya coach Khlain Pyrkhat Syiemlieh took pride in the heart that his boys have shown throughout the Santosh Trophy. There were several occasions when they found themselves on the back foot, but the boys always fought their way back.
“Right from the group stages, our team has been making comebacks constantly. We were down 2-1 against Odisha in the group stage and if we had lost we would not even have qualified (for the final round). Then we were losing to West Bengal and then (in the semifinals) to Punjab. So, one way to look at it is that the boys have a lot of heart and know how to battle adversity,” Syiemlieh said. “We know that Karnataka are good on the ball and have a lot of talented players who are playing in clubs and in ISL reserve sides. But we are undaunted. The boys know the gameplan and will stick to it.”
The Meghalaya head coach also thanked the fans and urged them to keep supporting the team in the final.
“Our phones have been flooded with congratulatory messages. Even on social media, there has been an outpouring of love from fans in Shillong,” he said. “Everyone is excited. It gives us a lot of heart that they are supporting us from afar. It’s a moment of pride for us, and we want to take this trophy back to Shillong.”
While the long tournament has meant Karnataka’s solid team unit has gelled and become a better one, for Meghalaya it has offered old war horses a chance to shine. Brolington Warlapih only joined the team for the final round, missing out on the preliminary stage because he wanted to spend time with his family during Christmas.
The 34-year-old has been turning out in the state team’s colours for almost a decade and was included in the fold with the intent of ensuring the young team had a mature spine. “This is the last dance, for sure,” he said. “I will retire after this and I want to do so on a high, by bringing our state this long deserved glory.”
Meanwhile, Karnataka head coach Ravi Babu Raju emphasised on the speed of attack for his side to prise open the opposition defence.
“The message we have constantly been forcing on the boys is that the job isn’t done yet. We have to finish the job and get the trophy. It’s essential to not lose that focus at all,” Raju said. “We have observed that the Meghalaya defence is susceptible when hit at speed. We will hope to hit them on the counter.”
Scenes of joy erupted after Karnataka defeated Services 3-1 in the semifinal. However, captain Karthik Govind Swamy was quick to convey that the senior members of the squad have ensured that all the players focus on the final instead.
“There was an initial burst of joy but it was after that evening that we as a team sat and spoken to each other. The senior players have taken the lead to let everyone know that it’s important to stay focused on going home with the trophy,” Karthik said.
There is similarity and also strong contrast in these two teams. Karnataka hold the head to head edge (having won both previous encounters) and enjoy keeping the ball and shifting flanks. Meghalaya do so too, but rather than crossing it from the wings, prefer to make inroads through the middle in the final third.
Karnataka’s players all come through the academies of the state’s new modern clubs, and are from all across India while Meghalaya are boosted by the pure strength of their domestic talent.
(All India Football Federation photo)