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Santosh Trophy: Punjab, Karnataka seal Riyadh spots, defending champions Kerala knocked out

Bhubaneshwar, Feb 19 (IANS) Punjab and Karnataka sealed their spots in the semifinals of the 76th National Football Championship for the Santosh Trophy, to be played at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh.

The two teams had started the day at the top two spots on the table, and despite some hiccups, finished the day in the same position.

The day ended on a disappointing note for defending champions Kerala. The day also ended in a blaze of glory, as Kerala kept going right until the dying seconds of the game. Punjab qualified for the semis despite being held 1-1, with first-half goals keeping both teams tied.

Karnataka also clinched their spot in the semis after holding Odisha 2-2, coming back from 1-2 down thanks to a goal by Shajan Franklin in the 50th minute.

In the third match of the day, Maharashtra defeated Goa 2-0 with Himanshu Patil scoring both goals, in the 5th and 89th minutes.

The focus was on the match between Kerala and Punjab. Kerala went into the game with the knowledge that only a win would take them through.

As it was though, the expertise of Nijo Gilbert, the tireless running of Mohamed Salim and the superb crossing by Arjun V. was dispelled by the resolute duo of Gurtej Singh and Rajat Kumar.

Their breakthrough came via a brilliant move that spanned the length of the pitch, before Vishak Mohanan broke clear from a sliding Gurtej to cut back and score from a tight angle, albeit inside the six-yard box.

The jubilation it provoked was understandable. For the next ten minutes, in fact, despite trailing by a goal Punjab were also going through, because Karnataka were losing to hosts Odisha.

No one told them that though and breaking through on a counterattack after Bhupinder Singh won the ball in midfield, Punjab got the equaliser to shock Kerala again. It was somewhat against the run of play and the two teams went into the break level.

In the second half, PB Ramesh brought on the experienced G. Sanju to replace Belgin and his composure at the back began to tell.

Kerala had multiple chances to score, with Harpreet Singh making multiple crucial saves, and Rajat clearing off the line twice to ensure they did not concede. In the end, as the clo’k ticked away, Kerala’s desperation grew, and yet the goal did not arrive, the defending champions missing out on a berth to Riyadh.