As Kerala’s Santosh Trophy probables worked on set pieces at the Calicut University Stadium at Thenipalam in Malappuram on Friday evening, head coach Satheevan Balan kept shouting out instructions. The coach and players appeared to be in a bit of a hurry.
A seven-time national champion, Kerala begins its Santosh Trophy campaign against Gujarat in Goa on October 11 but heavy rain has disrupted the team’s training. The camp for the probables began on September 15 and after two elimination rounds, the number is down to 34 but rain has robbed the players of five days of training.
“We were supposed to have a friendly (against Kerala Police) today but that has been cancelled. The ground is water-logged,” Satheevan told Sportstar on Saturday.
“If this is the condition, we may have to go to the Santosh Trophy without playing a single practice match.”
Just 12 players from last year’s Kerala team made it to the pruned list of 34 and more than half in the final 22-member team – likely to be announced on October 4 or 5 – are expected to make their National Championship debut. That is why Satheevan, who had coached Kerala to the Santosh Trophy victory in 2018, is keen that they play a few matches.
Satheevan is also keen to know how effective his strikers are.
“The problem we often face is, we lack a sharp finisher. Even when I coached the 2018 side, I did not have a star striker, somebody we can confidently say that he would score goals,” said Satheevan.
“Now, we are trying to bring in midfielders and others to that position, try game plans and score goals. Mostly, midfielders and wingers are scoring. The two strikers we have now, E. Sajeesh (Kerala Police) and Muhammed Ashiq (who played the National Games), have height and look good in training but we will know for sure whether they can score only when they play matches.”
They better be good because Kerala is in a tough Group ‘A’ in the Santosh Trophy’s first stage with Goa, Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh. The first stage has six groups and only the winners are assured of automatic berths to the final phase in Arunachal Pradesh.
The best three second-placed teams along with defending champion Karnataka, runner-up Meghalaya and host Arunachal will play the 12-team final phase.
“Host Goa will be our main rival, if we want to qualify directly, we will have to beat Goa. The Goans have not come to the semifinals of the nationals in a long time, but they have taken this Santosh Trophy, at home, very seriously,” explained Satheevan.
“That is why they made Derrick Pereira their coach. Jammu Kashmir is also a strong team. A lot of clubs have come up in J&K, the national camp (under-16) was held there recently. That will benefit their State team, they will get the Second Division I-League players and the reserve players of I-League teams. And Gujarat has a few Malayalis... we cannot see any team as being inferior to us.”
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