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 November 1, 2002 | 1750 IST

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Kerala romp into
Santosh Trophy final

Defending champions Kerala warded off a spirited challenge from Services to score a 3-2 victory and cruise into the final of the 58th National football championship, for the Santosh Trophy, in Imphal, on Friday.

The winners led 2-1 at the breather.

A brace by captain Asif Saheer was the feature of Kerala's victory. Saheer, who was named the man-of-the-match, struck in the 12th minute, to restore parity from a goal down, and in the 22nd minute, to give his side a vital lead in the first-half.

Veteran medio K Ajayan scored the match-winner in the 79th minute.

Johnny F Gamei and Pritam Bahadur netted Services' goals in the ninth and 65th minutes respectively.

The match began on an even note, with both the teams maintaning constant pressure on the rival goalmouth. However, in the ninth minute Services' the hardworking Raghu Kumar sent in a measured volley to Johnny F Gangmei, who headed home, much to the surprise of the Kerala goalkeeper.

Stung by the reverse, Kerala went on the offensive. The result was immediate, as only three minutes later T Asif Saheer got a through ball, which came from a good passing bout between S Ignatious and Abdul Noushad, and bulged the net with a good shot from inside the box.

With the score tied 1-1, both the teams slowed down the pace of the game, preferring not to take too many risks.

However the goal of the match came from Saheer, who produced the famous 'bicycle kick', to a measured cross from Shabeer Ali from the left flank, to beat the onrushing goal keeper to make the score 2-1 for Kerala in the 22nd minute.

Services did not lose heart and produced a couple of brilliant chances but on each occasion poor finishing prevented them from scoring.

First it was Gangmei, who missed a sitter in the 40th minute as he shot wide with only the goalkeeper to beat. Then, probably the easiest of chances was squandered as defender K Bineesh brought off a brilliant goalline save after a stinging Preetam Bahadur grounder had Kerala custodian Purushottam beaten.

In the dying minutes of the first half, Preetam Bahadur again had a shot on goal, following a goalmouth melee, but Vinu Jose came to the rescue of Kerala as he blocked the shot and sent the ball for a corner kick.

The beginining of the second-half saw some attacking football, particularly from Services, who were desperate to get the equaliser. They managed to find the equaliser in the 69th minute when Preetam Bahadur headed home from inside the box following a brilliant free-kick by Debnath.

They continued to keep the pressure on their rivals with a series of raids as Preetam Bahadur, Gangmei and Raghu Kumar combined well.

The match-winner for Kerala came in the 78th minute when K Ajayan got a lose ball and shot home with a stinging grounder which was too much for goalkeeper Abungobi Singh to handle.

This is Kerala's 11th entry into the final. They have won the crown four times and ended runners-up six times.

Complete Coverage: Santosh Trophy 2002