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Santosh Trophy: All 12 teams are ready for the final round in Arunachal

After a historic final stage in Saudi Arabia, the nation's premier state tournament will held in Arunachal Pradesh for the first time.

Santosh Trophy: All 12 teams are ready for the final round in Arunachal

Arunachal Pradesh is ready to host the final round of Santosh Trophy


The Bridge Desk

Published: 20 Feb 2024 3:00 PM GMT

The National Football Championship for Santosh Trophy breaks new ground every year. Quite literally. After a historic final four stage in Saudi Arabia where Karnataka were crowned champions after 54 years, the nation's premier state tournament is set to be held in Arunachal Pradesh for the first time.

On March 9, 2024, after 18 days of uninterrupted action at the Golden Jubilee Stadium in Yupia, the Santosh Trophy will be lifted for the 77th time. 12 teams (nine qualifiers from the group stage and three automatic qualifiers - hosts Arunachal Pradesh and last year's finalists Karnataka and Meghalaya) have been divided into two groups of six in the final round.

A total of 37 matches will be played due to the expansion of the knockout stage, where the top four teams from each group will progress to the quarter-finals. The ongoing I-League 2 season has taken a break to allow players to represent their states in the Santosh Trophy.

AIFF Technical Committee chairperson Mr IM Vijayan said, "The importance of the Santosh Trophy cannot be stressed enough as it gives young players the chance to shine. Clubs can identify and unearth talent. It's great to see the tournament spread to new places, and I can't wait to come to Arunachal Pradesh and witness the excitement."

Given the evenly-matched quality in both groups, it won't be easy to predict the quarter-finalists. Apart from Arunachal Pradesh who will be raring to amaze the home crowd, Group A contains the likes of Meghalaya, who will aim to go one better than their dream run into the final last year.

While head coach Khlain Pyrkhat Syiemlieh will miss a few key names who are part of Shillong Lajong's squad in the I-League, they still have a bunch of players from last year's team like Sheen Stevenson Sohktung, Dawanchwa Carlos Challam, Damonlang Pathaw and Brolington Warlarpih.

The group also contains Goa and Kerala, who fought tooth and nail in the group stage as the former ended up as unbeaten toppers and the latter qualified as one of the best runners-up. Goa have one of the most experienced squads in the final round, with most of their players hailing from I-League 2 sides Sporting Clube de Goa and Dempo SC. Kerala were an entire team effort in the group stage, with their 12 goals being scored by eight different scorers.

"This year's Santosh Trophy is different in many ways, with many unique challenges. Our group is expected to be tough, but we must adapt and persevere," said Kerala head coach Satheevan Balan.

Services and Assam will also heavily fancy their chances of making the knockouts. Both sides scored for fun in the group stage, netting 21 and 20 goals each. Assam were impeccable in defence as well, being the only side to keep a clean sheet in every game.

Up front, Dipu Mirdha will look to build on his solid tally of seven goals, while the inclusion of Pragyan Sundar Gogoi will add much-needed experience in Assam's midfield. On the other hand, Services will rely on the brilliance of young forward Samir Murmu and seasoned names like P Christopher Kamei and Bikash Thapa.

In Group B, Karnataka head coach Ravi Babu Raju only has eyes on the title defence. "Coming to the Santosh Trophy as the defending champion is a good feeling. That's in the past now, and our new task is to retain the title," said Raju.

Like Meghalaya, Karnataka have also lost some important names from last year like Robin Yadav, Bekey Oram and M Sunil Kumar, but Raju remains confident. "Our squad has many youngsters with a balanced mix of experienced players. We must be strong and ready to compete," he added.

Maharashtra, who led the goalscoring charts in the group stage with a whopping 24 goals in five matches, are one of the favourites in Group B. A bulk of those numbers were racked up by Himanshu Patil, Nikhil Kadam and Advait, who will look to recreate the same in Yupia. Further, India's Asian Games squad member Azfar Noorani has also joined the squad.

Manipur have been another free-scoring side, netting 21 goals in the first round. Head coach Thangjam Saran Singh has one of the youngest squads in the final round at his disposal, highlighted by forwards Phijam Sanathoi Meetei and Wangkheimayum Sadananda Singh. Interestingly, the last time the Santosh Trophy was held in the Northeast (2011 in Guwahati) was also the last time Manipur reached the final, losing to West Bengal.

On the other hand, Delhi are a side that made it into the final round on the basis of a rock-solid defence, eking out three 1-0 wins. The capital side, who won their only Santosh Trophy title in 1945, have assembled one of their best squads in recent years. "Our expectations are high. We have a blend of young and experienced players, including those from CISF and Indian Air Force and others who recently competed in I-League 2 and 3," said head coach Vikrant Sharma.

Mizoram and Railways, both of whom qualified as one of the best runners-up, round up Group B. The former will heavily miss the services of tournament top-scorer Lalkhawpuimawia, who scored eight goals in the group stage. However, other names like Vanlalbiaa Chhangte, R Malsawmtluanga and MC Malsawmzuala will bring plenty of I-League experience to the table. For Railways, Shabaz Pathan and Nuruddin have been in fine form.

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