In all 12 teams, including defending champion Kerala, qualified for the final round of the Santosh Trophy, all set for a clash to etch their own names on a trophy synonymous with the best of Indian Football.
Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Odisha, Punjab, Bengal, Meghalaya, Delhi and Manipur qualified from the group stages. They will be joined by Railways and Services in the final round of the tournament to kick off in Bhubaneswar on February 10. The semifinals, third place play and the final will be played in Saudi Arabia.
Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Odisha, and Punjab are placed in Group A while Group B include Bengal, Meghalaya, Delhi, Services, Railways, and Manipur.
The group stage of the tournament was played across six different venues -- Assam, Delhi, Maharashtra, Manipur, Odisha and Kerala -- and contested by 36 different teams.
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Defending champions Kerala go into the final round as, arguably, the favourites. The numbers bear testament to this. Not only have they won two of the last three editions -- and seven titles overall -- but they have also been supremely dominant in the group stages too, scoring the most goals (24) in five games at a mind-boggling rate of 4.8 goals per game. Playing at home, they conceded a mere two goals in the group stages to qualify for the final round.
Their biggest challenge will come from Bengal, who hold the record for the most titles in the tournament's history (32). Bengal's last win came in the 2016-17 edition, but the team has made three of the last four finals, losing both times to Kerala -- once at home in Kolkata and the second in Malappuram. Slotted in Group B, they will not meet their nemesis till the knockout stages, if all goes to plan.
Besides the two long-term favourites and nemesis, Punjab, Maharashtra and Karnataka will hope to ride on the dark horses tag to make the cut for the knockouts. Delhi, who have qualified for the final rounds after missing out on the last two occasions have not won the tournament since 1942. They go in as underdogs but if their performance in the group stages is any indicator, no one will take them lightly.
A traditionally strong Services team will hope to arrive at the final rounds and do what they do -- silently to make it to the final round, efficiently and without much fuss. Services have won five of the last ten editions of the tournament and will be keen to erase the memory of a disappointing performance last time out.
Bengal striker Narohari Shrestha, Maharashtra's Arif Sheikh and Kerala's Nijo Gilbert lead the goalscoring charts with six goals each. While none might come close to breaking Inder Singh's impossible feat of 23 goals, they will hope to etch their names alongside him as the winner of the golden boot for the tournament.
The tournament returned to Odisha for the first time in over a decade. The state has never won the tournament or even made the semifinals in its history. Perhaps they will be 76th-time lucky.