In defence of their title, Punjab started their Santosh Trophy campaign on the wrong note, going down to a resolute Services team that teamed up just well enough to stun the defending champions at the Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar on Thursday. This would go down as the second biggest upset of this edition — Services had earlier shown former champions Manipur the way out in the pre-quarterfinals.
After conceding twice in the first half, Punjab showed a lot of urgency and made a comeback of sorts after the breather, but despite their late cavalier surge, the 2006 winners ended up losers — thanks largely to the early setbacks that had put a fatal drag on their efforts.
Harvinder Singh's 57th minute strike for Punjab was not enough to devalue the efforts of Services’s . Raleng and Lal Ruatafela — their contrasting first half strikes meant it was the Services who held the upper hand and possession in the first 45 minutes of this edition’s first round-robin quarterfinal match.
Worryingly lax and lacking in ideas, that’s how one would describe Punjab’s game before the breather, the defenders were found wanting on numerous occasions, and Services took full advantage of these indiscretions.
In Raleng and Ruatafela, Services had the players who relish the sight of an unprotected goalkeeper — opportunities knocked at their door twice and they gobbled them up with glee on both occasions. If Raleng's seventh minute strike was not enough, Punjab were dealt another body blow midway through the first half when Ruatafela scored off set-piece with a rasping right footer that left the Punjab custodian, Karanjeet Singh, clueless. Here again, it was the unorganised Punjab citadel that made Ruatafela's task much easier than it appeared.
But, after a flop-show in the first half, there was an obvious shift in their approach after the breather and with the likes of Baldeep Singh, Harvinder, Baljeet Sahni and Balwant Singh getting their act together, it seemed like a determined Punjab outfit was ready to give their opponents a run for their money.
Even as the ball swayed between the boxes in the first few minutes, Punjab, seemingly focused — they had to focus for every second of every minute — finally made the breakthrough when Harvinder found the net after being laid off by Balwant in the 67th minute.
Buoyed by Harvinder's strike, Punjab coach Jagir Singh, in search of an equaliser, employed a more attacking set-up, but that was not enough as Services just managed to hold on to the lead and maintain their impressive run in the tournament.
J&K lose to Kerala
Anticipating a win for the home team, locals who filled the Bakshi Stadium, went home disappointed as Jammu and Kashmir suffered a narrow 1-2 defeat at the hands of former champions Kerala in the second match of the day.
Playing his debut match, Javed OK stunned the partisan crowd with his strike as early as in the 10th minute.
But the visitors surrendered the lead when Ishfaq Ahmad netted in the equaliser even as the first half drew to a tantalising finish. While it was Even Stevens before the breather, the second half belonged to Kerala. After skipper Abdul Noushad got his name registered in the scorers list, it was the turn of Asif Saheer to join the party — Saheer’s 79th minute strike, on the counter attack, put paid to prospects of a J&K comeback. Opportunities there were plenty for the hosts in the second half — Ishfaq and Rohit Kumar often threatened the rival box, but the Kerala defence was equal to the task.
Services 2 (S. Relang 7th, Lal Ruatafela 28th) beat Punjab 1 (Harvinder Singh 67th)
Kerala 3 (Javeed Ok 10th, Abdul Noushad 52nd, Asif Saheer 79th) beat J&K 1 (Ishfaq Ahmad 42nd).
Today’s matches: Maharastra versus Karnataka; West Bengal vs Goa