Defending champions Punjab will take on Manipur to kick off their 63rd Santosh Trophy campaign at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai on Tuesday. In the other quarterfinal league match of the day, 29-time winners Bengal lock horns with hosts Tamil Nadu.
Making a quarterfinal appearance after a gap of four years, traditional heavyweights Manipur had a smooth run in the qualifying phase, the 3-1 win over the Railways ensured their qualification, but Punjab, another team with an impeccable record, will prove to be a different ballgame altogether.
Led by India international Anwar, Punjab, back-to-back winners, got off to a bad start in the last edition in Jammu and Kashmir, losing to the surprise package of the tournament, Services, but then slowly gathered momentum and went on to win the title.
On the other hand, last year’s semifinalists Bengal would be hoping to break a jinx --- they last won the title in 1999 after thrashing Goa 5-0 in the final at Chennai. In the title clash in 2006, they lost to Punjab in the tiebreaker.
Captain Habibur Rahman Mondal has already said the “combination of youth and experience will click for Bengal this time around”. Besides the Mohun Bagan defender, Bengal will expect a lot froma ONGC’s Tarif Ahmed and troubled but talented striker PC Lalwmpuia of Bagan.
With the home crowd behind them and with some good football in the offing, the Kalia Kolothungan-led hosts would be hoping to spring a surprise. Of all the quarterfinalists, Tamil Nadu are the only team to have never won the title. Who knows, this could just turn out to be their moment.