Kochi: Kerala survived anxious moments yet again to finish 1-1 with Haryana and secure a spot in the semi-finals of the 67th Santosh Trophy football championship at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here on Tuesday.
The hosts topped Group ‘C’ with two wins and a draw and will face their real test against Maharashtra, the high-flying winners from Group ‘B’, in the first of the semi-finals on Thursday.
Needing just a draw, Kerala also had to stop Haryana from winning, but with Pankaj Sura’s 90th minute strike cancelling out Kannan’s 58th minute opener, the hosts lived through a nervous three-minute injury time.
Kerala coach M.M. Jacob had tightened his backline by replacing striker Kannan with defender Rino Anto in the 88th minute.
But all the intended defensive shape was lost in imagination as Vivek Kumar was played into space in the right with a ball from the deep.
The winger’s weighed cross forced a diving save from Kerala goalie Jean Christian only to fall into the path of Sura, who finished with the outside of his right foot into an empty net.
Earlier, an unimaginative Kerala was on display in the first half and to know that a tame shot from Sumesh at 18 yards in the 41st minute was the home side’s only attempt on goal makes the picture crystal clear.
One wonders what the Kerala plan was coming into the match as it was obvious that if Haryana won the tie they would qualify on the basis of the head-to-head result.
However, the game changed after the halftime, with a stroke of brilliance from Kannan. The striker strolled into space to convert a beautiful team goal in the 58th minute.
Kannan made it look routine, but to finish with the outside of his wrong foot into the far post meant courage and conviction above all.
Nazaruddeen, the Kerala Police striker, who for some strange reason was fixed in a centre midfield role, plotted the goal from the middle. Skipper Rahul had released Usman from whom Kannan scored.
As Kerala embark on a tough task of winning the prize for the first time after 2004, there are several subtle issues Coach Jacob will have to deal with.
The dearth of bench strength means he has to indulge in a lot of pep-talk, especially after disturbing his nervy, and only, playmaker Shibinlal with A substitution in the 27th minute.