Bhubaneswar, 21 February: Minnows Meghalaya created the biggest upset in the tournament as they stunned fancied former champions Bengal 2-1 in Pool B to complete the semi-final lineup of the 76th National Football Championship for the Hero Santosh Trophy here on Monday. 

Meghalaya has never previously progressed to this stage of the tournament and will now vie for the title when the knockouts take place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. 

Services have already qualified as the toppers of Group B. The two teams who have qualified from Group A are Punjab and Karnataka. 

In the semi-finals, Punjab will face Meghalaya-rematch of last year’s encounter in the group stage (Punjab won 1-0)-, while Services take on Karnataka at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh.

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Meghalaya started the day knowing that just winning against Bengal would not be enough for them — they also needed a favour from Services, who were playing Railways at the Capital Football Arena. 

Having already beaten formidable Manipur and thrashed Delhi, Meghalaya needed to do the job from their end and pray Railways didn’t. 

In other matches of the day, Services  overran Railways 4-0, and  Delhi beat Manipur 2-0

Bengal were in no mood to succumb easily though and took the lead via Sougata Hansda in the 36th minute. Meghalaya did not let their heads drop, though, and found their reward at the end of the half, Allen Lyngdoh (44’) and Nikelson Bina (45’+3’) scoring in quick succession to give them the lead. 

The second half was played at a slower pace, Meghalaya keen to see the game out without any drama. An injury to Bengal goalkeeper Shubham Roy meant that there would be a lot of added on time, and despite repeated Bengal attempts, an equaliser never arrived. Meghalaya‘s celebrations began on the pitch itself. Syiemlieh and Khongjee were duly tossed in the air, surrounded by players who will hope to shake things up even more in the knockouts. 

“There is a good mix of boys who have experience playing not just Santosh Trophy but also for clubs outside the state,” head coach Khlain Syiemlieh says. “They have a lot of hunger and desire and I’m very happy for them. They deserve it.” 

“In my time as a player we only qualified for the Santosh Trophy once,” he says. “And the bronze in the Nationals, while a big thing, wasn’t as big as this. This is the Santosh Trophy after all.”

Railways needed a win to qualify from Group B into the knockouts, and facing a Services outfit that had already qualified, they knew they had their task cut out. Teams as fine-tuned and in-form as Services never want to let their level drop and lose momentum. 

Throughout the Final Round, Railways employed a low block defence, that sits back and thwarts and frustrates opponents before nicking the goal that will give them the victory. Against Services, their plan did not change. Services kept knocking throughout the first half an hour, and when the floodgates finally opened, the goals burst through. Gautam Singh and Adersh Mattumal scored a goal in either half to give their team the win and confirm Railways’ exit.

Delhi recorded their first victory of the Final Round, beating Manipur in the final game at the Capital Football Arena today. For Manipur, last year’s semi-finalists, it was a humbling end to a campaign that promised much more. Ajay Singh’s first-half brace was enough for Delhi to wrap up a comfortable victory.

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