Bengaluru, January 21: Karnataka notched up a convincing 4-1 win over Services and qualified for the national round of the Santosh Trophy Football Championship at the Bangalore Football Stadium on Sunday (January 21).
Azaruddin gave Karnataka the lead in the 10th minute from the spot. Rajesh S (49th, 72nd) added a brace in the second half, while Laishram Herojit Singh pulled one back for Services in the 86th minute. Solaimalai N scored a minute before time to seal the win for Karnataka in their South Zone Qualifying Round match.
With three wins in Pool A against Telangana (5-0), Puducherry (2-0) and Services (4-1), Karnataka are through to the final round, the date and venue of which are not finalised yet. Word though is that Karnataka are set to bid for the national round as well.
Karnataka entered the national round of the Santosh Trophy National Football Championship for the first time since the zonal qualifying rounds were introduced in 2014. Their best finish in recent times has been a semi-final loss to Punjab during the 2007-08 Santosh Trophy.
"We've been practising for the last 45 days and the hard work has paid off," Karnataka coach P Muralidharan said after the game. "The boys showed ambition from day one to qualify for the national round. They had the right intentions coming into the game - we went for a win even though a draw would have sufficed - and qualified convincingly. All credit goes to the boys."
Contrary to the proceedings, Services began the game on a dominant note. Midfielder Mukesh Kumar pumped long throws-ins and Arjun Tudu even hit the post in the first minute of the game. Services would go on to hit the post two more times - not because they were unlucky but just their conversion rate was poor on the day.
Karnataka, meanwhile, came alive after midfielder Prabhjot Singh tripped Azaruddin in the penalty box. Bengaluru FC's reserve Azaruddin, an Under-21 player, stepped up and sent Services goalkeeper Sarath Narayanan the wrong way with a powerful left-footer into the net.
Services could have equalised eight minutes later if not for central defender Shafeel PP's goalline clearance after Karnataka goalkeeper Shainkhan CP was caught out of position.
Services, five-time winners of the Santosh Trophy, barely threatened Karnataka the rest of the half.
Karnataka returned after the break with a new strategy in place. With their players often falling for the offside trap, the attack spread to the wings. One such move proved dividends just four minutes into the second half. Leon Augustine crossed from the right flank into the far post. Rajesh S rose above his marker and doubled Karnataka's lead.
Services looked to have lost their composure after that, which let Karnataka capitalise. Karnataka captain Vignesh G intercepted a ball at the half-line and surged further in the 72nd minute, beating Davinder Singh of Services. When he reached the edge of the box, he snuck the ball in between the legs of Davinder to Rajesh at the far side of the box, who only had a simple tap-in to complete.
Karnataka took it slow and let Services come onto them. Herojit Singh pushed himself up the Services attack. Arjun Tudu of Services squared it back to Herojit from the right touchline in the 83rd minute, but he shot straight at Shainkhan, who got a powerful glove and pushed the ball to the left post. Seconds later, Herojit's header after a cross from the left kissed the right post and bounced away.
Three minutes later, Herojit finally scored for Services from a seemingly offside position. He took a touch with his left leg and tucked it into the net on a rebound.
Karnataka, however, weren't done. Vignesh was at the thick of the action again when he chipped the ball over Services defenders, who were expecting Leon Augustine to go for the ball. However, Augustine was a cover for Solaimalai, who sneaked past the defenders on the run, side-stepped the keeper and shot into the open goal.
"We're qualifying into the next round for the first time since 2012 and under my captaincy," Vignesh reflected afterwards. "Doing it on our own soil after five (six) years feels great."
Leon Augustine, however, may miss the final round as he was included in Bengaluru FC's squad for the AFC Cup.
Telangana 4 (Madan Kumar 14, 64, Syed Abid Hussain Razvi 18, 60) bt Pondicherry 0
Karnataka 4 (Azaruddin SK 10 pen, Rajesh S 49, 72, Solaimalai N 89) bt Services 1 (Laishram Herojit Singh 86)