Goa, Maharashtra, and hosts Odisha were eliminated after a day of thrilling action.

The day began with as many as five teams in Group A still with a chance to qualify for the semi-finals of the Santosh Trophy, Goa the only ones eliminated. By the time it ended, the number had been whittled down to two, Maharashtra and hosts Odisha also eliminated from contention. Kerala’s nervy victory over Odisha, Punjab’s demolition of Goa and Karnataka’s scrappy draw against Maharashtra means a Mexican standoff will now ensue.

Kerala 1 (Nijo Gilbert p 16’) beat Odisha 0

A leaky defence had been the bane of the defending champions in this edition, and they had conceded as many as they had scored (7) going into a crucial game against the hosts. It was a game where something, someone had to give, and if neither did then they would knock each other out nonetheless.

To the credit of Odisha, they have been outstanding for large swathes of this tournament, their possession-heavy, flank-switching style a pain for most opposition. What they have lacked are goals. That thrashing of Goa glosses over the fact that Odisha have actually struggled to do much of all those crosses and chances in the final third throughout the Santosh Trophy campaign. And so it proved today.

Kerala were cautious to begin, and in a midfield that had decided to take the day off, Nijo Gilbert was the only performer. In a hectic game with a lot of physical attrition, Gilbert’s calm on the ball stood out. Understandably, that calm was also on display when he was asked to take the 16th-minute penalty to put his team ahead. He dispatched it with ease.

From there, it turned into a coaching drill, attack vs defence. Odisha kept pushing forward in numbers, and Kerala somehow kept pushing them back. Crosses looped in were headed out, and the second ball cleared off the toes of an Odisha player. It was desperate stuff, but electric too, and as the minutes ticked by the crowd at the Kalinga Stadium joined in the fray, urging the home team on. In the end, the defending champions held on.

For them, though the job is only half done, a fact coach PB Ramesh was keen to highlight. “Every game is a knockout for us now,” he said. And their next, against Punjab is essentially a quarterfinal, where the winner will book a berth to Riyadh.

Karnataka 3 (Robin Yadav p 45+4’, P Ankith 61’, Shajan Franklin 90’+11’) drew with Maharashtra 3 (Johnson Mathews 14’, Armash Ansari 55’, 60’)

For Maharashtra, this tournament will be a lesson in how to manage injury time. Or perhaps even how to manage the last ten minutes of a game they are winning and ensure they see it through. Steven Dias will rue the number of time his team have squandered a lead (in every game they have played at this tournament ) and how many times they have done it late (in three out of four games in this tournament).

At the 7th Battalion ground in the morning, they went in with an outside chance, needing a win and hoping everyone else draws every game they play. It was too much of an ask, but they played their part, attacking with verve to take the lead, before letting Karnataka back in — yes, you guessed right — injury time of the first half. Two quick goals in the second half seemed to have sealed the deal for them, and shocked Karnataka too.

But it was not to be. Karnataka hit back and then hit back some more. They were top of the table when the game began and a victory would have sealed the deal. A loss would drop them back in the doldrums, and put everything in jeopardy. Deep in injury time, Shajan Franklin rose high, and rose true to head a throw-in into the Maharashtra net. Pandemonium broke loose on the bench. They may not have won, but a draw meant they had their destiny in their own hands. Win against Odisha, and they will be in Riyadh.

Punjab 3 (Nickson Castanha og 20’, Rohit Sheikh 74’ 80’) beat Goa 1 (Clencio Pinto 88’)

It’s hard to fault Punjab for anything they’ve done so far in this group. And even on a day of upsets, drama and of extreme table calculation mathematics, they got the job done from their end, winning comfortably against Goa at the 7th Battalion ground.

And yet, while it takes them top of Group A, it doesn’t guarantee anything. The permutations are mind-boggling. They play Kerala on February 19th, with everything on the line. Anything but a loss will see them through. Lose and they’ll be locked on points with Kerala but with a worse head-to-head record. They will then have to rely on Odisha to beat Karnataka so they can sneak through. An exciting final day beckons.

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