Five-time champions Kerala edged out Mizoram 1-0 in the semi-final to book their berth in the final of the 72nd edition of the national championship for the Santosh Trophy at the Mohun Bagan Ground on Friday. Kerala will face 32-time winners and hosts Bengal in the summit clash on Sunday. Bengal beat Karnataka in the other semis clash. Substitute Afdal VK netted the winner in the 54th minute thus causing an upset of sorts with Mizoram playing the better football on the day. Kerala, riding the slender victory, reached their first final since the 2012/13 edition.
Satheevan Balan made four changes from their 1-0 win over Bengal.
Goalkeeper Midhun V and striker Sajith Poulose made a comeback alongside Jithin MS and Jithin Gopalan.
Mizoram, without coach Lalsangzuala Hmar, who was sent off to the stands in the last game and was serving a one-game suspension, altered their formation to play a 4-1-4-1. Lalnuntluanga was the defensive screen and F.Lalrinpuia played a bit withdrawn with Lal Remruata the sole striker.
Given the nature of the tie, both sides started off cautiously. However, Mizoram showed much more promise especially Lalbiakhlua who managed to get the game going from the right flank.
Within ten minutes, Mizoram were winning all sorts of set-pieces but Lalnuntluanga's free-kick ricocheted off the wall and even Hming Thanmawia hit the ball over the bar in the ninth minute.
Lal Romawia could not add to his four goals in the tournament when he swivelled from around 17 yards as Midhun V made an outstretched save, diving to his right after the quarter hour mark.
Mizoram had a golden opportunity in the 33rd minute to get the lead but Romawia missed from closed range. Lalrinpuia's shot forced Midhun to fist the ball out but the north-eastern side could not take advantage from the goalmouth melee.
Kerala's only bright chance in the first half was Rahul KP's miss from the edge of the box on the volley. Such incompetence in the first half prompted Balan to usher in striker Afdal VK for an ineffective Sajith Poulose just before the whistle.
That substitution paid immense dividends nine minutes after the change of ends. Collecting the ball from a diagonal pass, Jithin MS made a darting run from the right and cut in to dodge past two men. Rahul KP shot from his square pass but keeper Laltanpuia Ralte parried it off.
Afdal VK, unmarked, took his chance and slotted the ball home to give Kerala the lead against the run of play.
The setback caused some panic amongst the Mizoram ranks but they had no one to look to for inspiration in the dugout with their coach absent from the touchline.
Both strikers, Lal Rammawia and Malsawmzuala MC were brought on and the former champions came closest in the 81st minute.
With seven bodies inside the opposition half, Mizoram could not penetrate past a solid Kerala defence as Vibin Thomas and Rahul V Raj proved to be almost impenetrable.
Rammawia, Romawia and Biakhlua all tried their luck from continuous blocks and rebounds but their luck did not shine.