Kochi: Riding on Shimin Lal's second-half extra-time winner, Kerala defeated Maharashtra 2-1 to enter the summit clash of the 67th Santosh Trophy, here on Thursday. The five-time nationals champions will now face either defending champions Services or Punjab in the final on March 3 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
In the semi-final clash, Shibin set the crowd on fire after letting loose a rasping right-footer from the edge of the 18-yard box in the 118th minute. He was brilliantly set up by substitute Ahammed Malik. Shibin in the process made up for his bungle in the 99th minute of the match. The teams were locked 1-1 after regulation time. Usman's goal from the penalty spot in the 55th minute was negated by F Lalrempuia's 71st minute strike.
A barren yet action-packed first half gave way to a goal mouth second. Usman's powerful strike in the 53rd minute struck the horizontal. Referee Ranjith Bakshi pointed towards the dreaded spot seconds later, due to handball inside the box during the melee that followed the shot. The lanky striker converted with minimal fuss sending the goalkeeper in the wrong direction.
But out of the blue, the visitors equalised through Lalrempuia. Breaking the avalanche of attacks from Kerala, Lalrempuia unleashed a venomous right-footer from outside the box to bring the match on level terms. It was the home side who looked the hungrier of the two to draw first blood in a riveting contest where both the outfits went for the offensive from the word go.
In the opening exchanges, Kannan's shot was ably blocked by the Ranjan Salam of Maharashtra for a corner. The resultant flag kick saw Kannan's partner up front Usman rise above the visitors' defenders to send a stinging header inches wide. Every attempt on goal got a loud cheer from the crowd who thronged in numbers to watch their team in action. Kerala came closest to scoring in the final third of the first essay when Usmans angled left footer missed the target with the goalkeeper at his mercy.
The hosts had a moment of scare too. Goalkeeper Jean Christian needlessly came out of his line in the 43rd minute to catch the loose ball. It needed winger Sumeshs alacrity to make up for the custodian's goof up. The feted Maharashtra strike-duo of NP Pradeep and Mohammed Rafi both former India Internationals were bottled up expertly too by the Kerala defence.
To make matters worse, Rafi picked up an injury in the first half and had to be replaced by Anas Ibnu Salam in the 36th minute. Kerala started the match without their regular captain P Rahul ruled out due to injury. His replacement Nazarudeen too could not last the distance, picking up a niggle in the 33rd minute.