Jijo Joseph was the star of the day as he scored a hat-trick.
West Bengal kicked off their campaign in the 75th Hero Santosh Trophy with a tightly fought 1-0 victory over Punjab in the opening game of the tournament.
Right from the start, the tournament’s two most successful teams attacked with fervour, intent on grabbing all three points to gain a strong foothold in Group A.
The chances flowed at both ends fairly quickly. In the 8th minute, Jashandeep Singh’s free kick from the left, curved and dipped to force West Bengal goalkeeper Priyant Kumar Singh into a save. The rebound was too quick for Amarpreet Singh to capitalize as the ball rolled wide.
Punjab had not conceded a single goal through their qualifying campaign, but here against West Bengal they faced their stiffest test, conceding possession often in the first half, and goalkeeper Harpreet Singh was called into action from multiple corners. In the 20th, Harpreet made his first real save of the game, parrying Basu Deb Mandi’s long range swerving shot to safety.
And yet, it was Punjab who could have gone into the break with the lead. A long ball from deep was misjudged by West Bengal captain Monotosh Chakladar in defence, and the ball fell to Tarun Slathia a few yards outside the box. Slathia collected neatly and charged in, with only goalkeeper Priyant to beat, but dragged his shot wide. The two teams went into the break locked in a stalemate.
West Bengal took control of proceedings more forcefully in the second half, holding possession for longer and stitching neater passes in midfield. They got their reward in the 61st minute, with the youngster Sajal Bag, drifting wide, beating his marker and crossing into the box. His delivery found Shubham Bhowmick perfectly placed near the penalty spot and the forward’s first time volley hit the inside of the far post and bounced in, leaving Harpreet Singh helpless.
Four minutes later, Bengal could’ve doubled their lead, with what may well have been a contender for goal of the season. Midfielder Tanmoy Ghosh — who was the main lynchpin for his side — collected the ball 30 yards out, looked up and unleashed a superb shot, destined for the top corner, only for a diving Harpreet to palm it on to the crossbar and safety. It was an acrobatic piece of goalkeeping sure to be one of the highlights of the tournament.
The save gave Punjab the impetus and thrust they had been lacking all game, and soon they started creating chances of their own. In the 75th minute, Rohit Sheikh’s chipped ball found Jaginder Singh just outside the box, facing the goal. The U21 player collected the ball perfectly and then unleashed a curling shot, only to be denied by a diving Priyant in the West Bengal goal.
As the minutes ticked by, both teams got more desperate, Punjab pouring forward in numbers, and West Bengal packing bodies to defend their slender lead. With the last minute came the final bit of drama. Sheikh was again at the centre of it, crossing perfectly from the left, to set up Akashdeep Singh inside the box. The forward had the goal at his mercy, the defenders and the goalkeeper beaten. Unfortunately, he couldn’t control his shot, or the pass, slicing wide, and falling to the grass in despair. West Bengal held on to ensure they had a winning start to the tournament.
Kerala thump Rajasthan
Powered by captain Jijo Joseph’s majestic hat-trick, Kerala stamped their credentials among the contenders for the 75th Hero Santosh Trophy, beating Rajasthan 5-0 in Group A.
Roared on by a capacity crowd at the Manjeri Payyanad stadium, the hosts started proceedings at a frenetic pace, attacking with verve right from the start and not allowing Rajasthan to settle into the game. Kerala scored inside the first 10 minutes via a majestic strike. In the sixth minute, Kerala won a free-kick just outside the box. Captain Jijo Joseph took charge of proceedings, lining the ball up, before curling it into the top right, just beyond the reach of Maninder Singh in Rajasthan’s goal.
The goal gave Kerala more confidence and coach Bino George urged his team to move forward and try and score more, to put the game beyond any doubt. Three minutes after taking the lead, they came close again, Muhammed Saheef’s cross headed over by M Viknesh.
Kerala attacked collectively and consecutively, responding not just to the crowd but also to the depth of talent in their squad, and with better finishing could have put the game to bed within the first half hour. Viknesh, Arjun Jayaraj and Muhammed Safnad all had shots at goal, and in most cases, Maninder was drawn into a save, forced to keep his team in the game. Kerala’s captain Jijo Joseph was majestic in midfield, pulling the strings and creating opportunities every time he had the ball in space, but somehow Rajasthan kept them at bay.
In the 30th minute, Rajasthan may as well have had an equaliser too. Some lacklustre defending by Kerala resulted in the ball falling to Youraj Singh but he he blazed wide with just the goalkeeper to beat.
The miss was a wake up call for Kerala, a clear signal that one goal wouldn’t do. Soon they had more. In the 38th minute, Nijo Gilbert drove the ball into space on the left of the box, before unleashing a superb shot into the far corner to double the hosts’ lead going into the break.
Kerala kept the momentum up in the second half, holding majority of the possession and continuously peppering the Rajasthan goal with shots. Jijo Joseph was constantly a menace, and three minutes either side of the hour-mark completed his hat trick. His second goal came in the 57th minute, Muhammed Saheef’s brilliant through ball putting him through one-on-one with the goalkeeper and Joseph did not miss.
In the 62nd minute, after some brilliant play on the flank, Soyal Joshy crossed the ball in from the right and Joseph glanced it in to put his team four up and enjoy the applause of the crowd. Ajay Alex’s 81st minute goal was the icing on the cake as Kerala took all three points and their captain, the match ball.
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