Kolkata : Reigning champions Bengal will have to contend with five-time winners Kerala in their quest for yet another national football title as the two heavyweights clash in the final of the Santosh Trophy at the Saltlake Stadium, here on Sunday.
The 32-time champions Bengal, who ousted Karnataka in a nervy semi-final, will also look to avenge their group stage defeat against Kerala.
Bengal veteran duo of Jiten Murmu and Tirthankar Sarkar scored against Karnataka to set up a meeting with Kerala who pipped Mizoram 1-0 in the other semi-final.
Kerala have emerged the overwhelming favourites at the tournament but face their biggest test against a Bengal team which knows all about them, having faced the Southern outfit earlier in a redundant Group A game.
Kerala managed a 1-0 win in the meeting at Mohun Bagan Ground but Bengal Head Coach Ranjan Chowdhury feels the final clash is a different game altogether.
Bengal, who will carry the advantage of playing at home, have built their success around a solid defence that has only conceded two goals so far in the tournament, while they relied heavily on quality of Jiten Murmu at the other end.
“There is absolutely no pressure on the team. The team has confidence in it’s ability to win the final against Kerala,” Chowdhury said.
Speaking about the opponents he said, “Kerala is a very strong and organised team. They are very strong defensively and got many talented players. Whoever wins on Sunday needs to earn the trophy by playing well.”
Nearly half of the Bengal squad members are playing their first Santosh Trophy, with many of them in their early 20s and there are only four survivors from the team that won the title under Mridul Banerjee last year, Ankit Mukherjee, Ranajit Majumder, Sourav Das Gupta and Manotosh Chakladar.
Kerala have not won the trophy since 2005 and lost on penalties to Services in the final five years ago at home in Kochi.
The Southern outfit are quick off the blocks on both flanks with a solid midfield marshalled by Seesan S and Jithin Gopalan. The strike pair of Afdal VK and Anurag PC can tear apart any defense on their day.
“I am very happy with the progress of my team, which has shown great improvement match after match. We have a great deal of respect for Bengal but I know my players are capable of winning the title,” coach Satheevan Balan said.
For many a fan, Kerala is the favourite to win the ultimate at the ten-team tournament, but Satheevan Balan insisted Bengal have an equal chance of being crowned champions.
“We are not favourites.
Since we arrived here, we take every game as a final and against Bengal will be same. We will put in our best to make sure we win. We have an idea of the Bengal team having played them earlier in the tournament but we are talking of the final and surely it will be different,” he said.