Riyadh: Meghalaya will seek a maiden title while a resurgent Karnataka aim for their first triumph in 54 years when the two teams face off in the summit clash of the National Football Championships for the Santosh Trophy here Saturday.
While it will be historic if the tiny northeastern state of Meghalaya win the trophy, Karnataka have the chance to end their long wait for success and reassert themselves as a football power in the country.
Playing in their first-ever semifinals, Meghalaya beat former champions Punjab, having come back from a one-goal deficit to make it to their maiden final.
Karnataka were a force to reckon with in Indian football when they won the Santosh Trophy the last time in the 1968-69 season. At that time, the state was called Mysore.
Karnataka finished runners-up in 1975-76 after losing to Bengal in the final. It was their last appearance in the title clash before this edition.
It is difficult to predict who will emerge champions Saturday at the King Fahd International Stadium where the business end of the Santosh Trophy is being hosted by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF).
Former champions Punjab and Services were the favourites to feature in the summit clash but Meghalaya and Karnataka stunned their fancied opponents.
Services have won five titles in the last 10 editions but they were done in by a tactically and technically superior Karnataka side that kept improving throughout the three-stage tournament.
They controlled the midfield and did not give the fitter Services players too many scoring chances. From an evenly-contested first half, Karnataka outwitted their opponents in the second session for a 3-1 win.
Karnataka finished second behind Delhi in the first round league to qualify for the second round in Bhubaneswar.
They again finished second in Bhubaneswar — which was also a round robin league — without losing any match to earn a ticket for the knock-out stage in Saudi Arabia.
Who controls the midfield better will again decide the result of the final and Karnataka head coach Ravi Babu Raju knows it too well.
“Against Services, we knew they had some very good midfielders, so we analysed their play and we were able to neutralise them. It’s the same for Meghalaya, they are also very good at the midfield,” he said.
“So, we are analysing their video clippings and will chalk out our game plan. We believe we can win tomorrow, we have not won the trophy for more than 50 years. We have come here to take the trophy home.”
Both Meghalaya and Karnataka keep the ball and play mostly short and ground passes, instead of long balls as both sides don’t have too many tall players.
Meghalaya head coach Khlain Syiemlieh said his boys will do whatever it takes to lift the trophy.
“You know, the football crazy fans at home have huge expectations from the team. They want us not to lose this chance to create history and my boys know it,” the head coach said.
“We have prepared very well, analysed Karnataka how they play and we are confident that we can win our maiden title.”
The Video Assistant Referee (VAR), to be operated by the SAFF officials, is expected to be used on Saturday, which will be the first instance in a domestic tournament.
The technology was to feature in the semifinals Wednesday but was not used eventually.
The stadium was near-empty during the semifinals which the Saudi and All India Football Federation (AIFF) officials attributed to a working day here and the absence of the Kerala team in the semifinals. The officials are expecting more spectators Saturday, which is a holiday here.