RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA: Karnataka had always been one of the major football-playing states even before the country attained Independence. Over the years the state from southern India has produced a host of legendary footballers, who made India proud in international competitions.

Yet, the Hero Santosh Trophy, the symbol of supremacy in India’s domestic competitions, has somehow remained elusive to Karnataka for more than five decades now. The last time they reached the final was in the 1975-76 season and since then, they could never reach the title round.

Things, however, changed at the King Fahd International Stadium on Wednesday night. After Meghalaya made the final for the first time in history at the expense of eight-time champions Punjab, it was Karnataka’s turn to emerge as the worthy challengers in the final. In the second semi-final, Karnataka played forthright football against strong contenders Services and emerged 3-1 winners with goals from Robin Yadav, Ankith P and M Sunil Kumar.

It was an eventful match that was stretched over 100 minutes because of injuries and too many stoppages right from the start. But then, the match was virtually won and lost in the first session, or in its closing minutes, to be precise. The last six minutes of the first half remained highly eventful – it fetched three goals and a near miss that could have put Karnataka further ahead. It began with Services winger Bikash Thapa missing an easy chance in the 39th minute; he had all the time in the world to cut past the goalkeeper, which he duly did, only to be foiled by an onrushing defender Nikhil.

Just when everyone was wondering whether Thapa was actually the right man to avail himself of the opportunity, he produced a goal that was worthy of being scored at the great stadium. Off a corner kick, there was the usual melee inside the box and Thapa scored with a quick back-heal that caught the Karnataka defence completely off-guard. Probably to make his goal at the famous venue a memorable one, Thapa ran towards the bench and then broke into a Cristiano Ronaldo-like celebration, much to the delight of the photographers around.

The story of the first half, however, was far from over. It swung Karnataka’s way almost immediately, with Robin Yadav equalising off a free kick from around 25 yards. It wasn’t a stinging shot – the Yadav try of course had the necessary power, but more than that, it had the correct angle, which proved to be too much for Services custodian Bhabindra Malla Thakuri.

The Services goalkeeper, also the captain of the team, perhaps could have done better when Ankith P made it 2-1 for Karnataka in the 43rd minute. The ball was hovering around the Services box for some time with more than one square pass being played. Yet when Ankith found the target with a low shot, Thakuri didn’t seem to be as prepared as he was expected to be.

In the second half, just as it appeared that Services were desperate to make a comeback, Karnataka took the game away from them in the 77th minute with a goal scored by substitute M Sunil Kumar almost immediately after he came in. He latched onto a ball that came to him off a throw-in and then, like a smooth operator, he managed to get the ball past the Services goalkeeper.

Services will now face Punjab in the 3rd Place Match in Riyadh at 5.30 pm IST on Saturday, March 4, while the summit clash of the 76th National Football Championship for the Hero Santosh Trophy will be played between Meghalaya and Karnataka at 9 pm IST, at the same venue, on the same day.


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