Five-time champions Kerala made it to the final of the 72nd Hero Santosh Trophy with a 1-0 win over Mizoram in the semi-final match held at the Mohun Bagan Ground on Friday (March 20, 2018).
Substitute Afdal VK’s goal in the 54th minute upturned the Mizoram cart, who certainly were the better team on the day. Thereby, Kerala reached their first final since the 2012/13 edition of the tournament.
Satheevan Balan made four changes from their 1-0 win over Bengal. Meanwhile, Mizoram, without coach Lalsangzuala Hmar, who was sent off to the stands in the last game and was serving a one-game suspension, altered their formation to play a 4-1-4-1.
Given the nature of the tie, both sides started off cautiously. However, Mizoram showed much more promise especially Lalbiakhlua who managed to get the game going from the right flank.
Within ten minutes, Mizoram were winning all sorts of set-pieces but Lalnuntluanga’s free-kick ricocheted off the wall, while Hming Thanmawia’s effort went over the bar.
Lal Romawia could not add to his four goals in the tournament when he swivelled in from around 17 yards as Midhun V made an outstretched save, diving to his right after the quarter hour mark.
Mizoram had a golden opportunity in the 33rd minute to get the lead but Romawia missed from closed range. Lalrinpuia’s shot forced Midhun to fist the ball out but the North-Eastern side could not take advantage from the goalmouth melee.
Kerala’s only bright chance in the first half was Rahul KP’s miss from the edge of the box on the volley. Such incompetence in the first half prompted Balan to usher in striker Afdal VK for an ineffective Sajith Poulose just before the whistle.
That substitution paid immense dividends nine minutes after the change of ends. Collecting the ball from a diagonal pass, Jithin MS made a darting run from the right and cut in to dodge past two men. Rahul KP shot from his square pass but ‘keeper Laltanpuia Ralte parried it off. Afdal VK, unmarked took his chance from the rebound and slotted the ball home to give Kerala the lead against the run of play.
The setback caused some panic amongst the Mizoram ranks but they had no one to look for inspiration in the dugout with their coach absent from the touchline. Both strikers, Lal Rammawia and Malsawmzuala MC were brought on and the former champions came closest in the 81st minute.
With seven bodies inside the opposition half, Mizoram could not go past a solid Kerala defence as Vibin Thomas and Rahul V Raj proved to be almost impenetrable. Rammawia, Romawia and Biakhlua all tried their luck from continuous blocks and rebounds but luck wasn’t on their side.
Kerala held on to enter a Trophy final after four years, their fourteenth overall. The five-time champions will now face 32-time winners, defending champions and hosts Bengal in the ultimate showdown on Sunday (April 1, 2018).