Bengal continues to reign supreme

The victorious Bengal team.-PTI

Manipur, a tiny state, did the giant-killing act with glee as it put up a fine show of force and finesse on its way to the final. Though it lost the final to Bengal by a narrow 2-1 margin, it left the tournament with its head held high. Over to Amitabha Das Sharma.

Assam, the nerve centre of north-eastern India, played host to the latest edition of the Santosh Trophy which turned out to be a memorable one. Even as Bengal stamped its authority, lifting the trophy for the 31st time, the tough challenge it faced in the final against Manipur at Guwahati's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium opened up a new horizon for the otherwise lackadaisical Indian football.

Manipur, a tiny north-eastern state, did the giant-killing act with glee as it put up a fine show of force and finesse on its way to the final. Though it lost the final by a narrow 2-1 margin, it left the tournament with its head held high.

Shabbir Ali, having a long experience of coaching at both national and club level, made no mistake in reading his opponent and correctly pointed out that Manipur could not pull the decisive punch because of the immaturity in its ranks.

Unlike Bengal, Manipur presented a team that was truly constructed out of native talents gleaned from its development programme. Coach S. Ekendra Singh was at the head of this resurgence being a part of the think-tank that supervises Manipur's successful youth-development programme under the AFC's Vision India project.

With the tournament schedule clashing with I-League dates, most of the big names of Indian football gave the tournament a miss and thus the stage was set for the newcomers to sizzle. “On the positive side this is giving a lot of young players the chance to showcase their talents in absence of the so-called stars who generally block the places,” said Ali. Goa, the last year's semifinalist, seemed to be hit hard by the relative imbalance owing to by the absence of the stars. But this vacuity created opportunities for the likes of Victorino Fernandes, Augustin Fernandes and Cavin Lobo to showcase their ability.

The players impressed with their individual skills but failed to perform together as a team as Goa made an early departure failing to make it to the semifinals. “The team is good but we failed to gel together as there was no time for extended practice sessions. Most of my players are from clubs which do not play in the top tier of the state league,” said Goa coach Peter Vales. With only three matches to play in the quarterfinal league, the seasoned coach struggled to string together a winning combination.

Eight-time champion Punjab also witnessed a similar fiasco. Having last triumphed in 2008, Pujab matched the 2009 champion (Goa) in underperforming and got knocked out before the final stage. Veteran coach Jagir Singh, who has an enviable record of winning a clutch of Santosh Trophy titles for Punjab, could only watch in disgust as his players made a frustrating attempt in recreating the state's trademark long-pass game.

Services was rewarded for its grittiness and made it to the semifinals despite not winning a single game in the quarterfinal league. The group ‘B' of the quarterfinal league remained interestingly lopsided as all the three wins went Railways' way making it the group topper ( 9 points) while the remaining three encounters — in the four-team group that saw six league matches — were draws. This put the three teams — Services, Punjab and Goa — in a heap at the bottom, with two points each, jostling for a single semifinal berth. Services, having scored more goals, presented the best statistics among the three and went into the semis to take on Manipur. Taking a dig at the tournament schedule, Services coach Jagmohan said: “We were made to play a match every alternate day which comes to eight matches in 15 days. It is not possible for teams to bring out their best if the fixtures are so punishing.”

Bengal's brand Vincent Cardozo scored the only hat-trick of the tournament.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

While Services toiled playing a match every other day, defending champion Bengal earned a five-day rest between its quarterfinal and semifinal fixtures.

All the rigour that Services endured fetched it a lot of cheers, especially for the way it repeatedly came back from behind against top teams like Punjab and Goa. Striker Arjun Tudu showed composure in front of goal, troubling the opposition defenders with speed and a great shooting ability. P.S. Sumesh and G.S. Sandhu at the Services' deep defence also performed creditably in the team's passage to the semis.

Bengal, which tasted all forms of result with a win, a draw and loss to emerge the second best side from group ‘A' behind Manipur in the quarterfinals, came up with its best showing against the Railways in the semifinals.

Railways, playing its first semifinal after more than a decade, flaunted an all-win record and a very fit team but the holder came up with a much improved performance as it gained control over the action with a better show of skill. It held on to a one goal lead after striker Budhiram Tudu had found the net early in the second session. In the other semifinal, Manipur faced the famed Services resistance and overcame it with a penalty in the extra-time in the 117th minutes.

Branco Vincent Cardozo, who scored the only hat-trick of the tournament, showed his true class when the team sought his services most. The sinewy Bengal striker produced a brilliantly timed volley that gave Bengal the vital lead against Manipur in the final. Budhiram Tudu doubled it with another remarkable finish in the second half to set the holder on its way to another title. Ekendra Singh overhauled the Manipur attack exhausting his quota of substitutions and the move fetched a goal from Nabachandra Singh in the 76th minute. Despite valiant attempts the side failed to get the equaliser as Bengal successfully preserved the slender lead.

The Results:

Final: Bengal 2 (Branco Vincent Cardozo 20th, Budhiram Tudu 48th) bt Manipur 1 (L. Nabachandra Singh 76th).

Semifinals: Manipur 1 (L. Tohoiba Singh 117th (pen)) bt Services 0; Bengal 1 (Budhiram Tudu 39th) bt Railways 0.