The finish line is almost in sight with Santosh Trophy's Grand Finale ready to witness Karnataka cross swords with Meghalaya at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday, March 4, 2023.
While the competition itself has come to newer horizons, with the semi-finals, third-place match and the final being held overseas for the first time, the two teams in the summit clash are also in somewhat unfamiliar territories; Karnataka are in the final for the first time since the 1975-76 season, and Meghalaya will make their maiden appearance in the summit clash.
Speaking to media on the eve of the match, Karnataka head coach Ravi Babu Raju hailed the new format of the competition, which has been introduced as part of the Federation management's vision, which was launched earlier this year.
"This new format has been very good for us, for every team and the players in fact. The sheer number of games means we can keep evolving our tactics, seek improvements, and ensure performances get better. Our players have had the chance to improve their game," Karnataka coach Ravi Babu Raju said.
Asked about the upcoming match against Meghalaya, Raju emphasised on the speed of attack for his side to prise open the opposition's defence.
"The message we have constantly been forcing on the boys is that the job isn't done yet. We have to finish the job and get the trophy. It's essential to not lose that focus at all. We have observed that the Meghalaya defence is susceptible when hit at speed. We will hope to hit them on the counter," he added.
Scenes of joy erupted after Karnataka defeated Services 3-1 in the semi-final to book their spot in the final. However, captain Karthik Govind Swamy was quick to convey that the senior members of the squad have ensured that all the players focus on the final instead.
"There was an initial burst of joy, but it was after that evening that we as a team sat and spoke to each other. The senior players have taken the lead to let everyone know that it's important to stay focussed on going home with the trophy," said Karthik.
Meghalaya head coach Khlain Syiemlieh took pride in the heart that his boys have shown throughout the Hero Santosh Trophy. Indeed, there have been many an occasion when they found themselves on the back foot, but the boys from the Garo and Khasi hills have always fought their way back.
"Right from the group stages, our team has been making comebacks constantly. We were down 1-2 against Odisha in the group stage and if we lost we would not even have qualified. Then we were losing to West Bengal, and then to Punjab. So one way to look at it is that the boys have a lot of heart and know how to battle adversity," said Syiemlieh.
"We know that Karnataka are good on the ball and have a lot of talented players who are playing in clubs and in ISL reserve sides. But we are undaunted. The boys know the game plan and will stick to it," he said.
The Meghalaya head coach also thanked the fans and urged them to keep supporting the team in the final.
"Our phones have been flooded with congratulatory messages. Even on social media, there has been an outpouring of love from fans in Shillong. Everyone is excited. It gives us a lot of heart that they are supporting us from afar. It's a moment of pride for us, and we want to take this trophy back to Shillong," he said.
While the long tournament has meant Karnataka's solid team unit has gelled and become a better one, for Meghalaya it has offered old war horses a chance to shine. Brolington Warlapih only joined the team for the Final Round, missing out on the Group Stage because he wanted to spend time with his family during Christmas.
The 34-year-old has been turning out in the state team's colours for almost a decade and was included in the fold with the intent of ensuring the young team had a mature spine. "This is the last dance, for sure. I will retire after this and I want to do so on a high, by bringing our state this long-deserved glory," he said.
There is a similarity and also strong contrast between these two teams. Karnataka holds the head-to-head edge (having won both previous encounters) and enjoys keeping the ball and shifting flanks. Meghalaya does so too, but rather than crossing it from the wings, prefers to make inroads through the middle in the final third.
Karnataka's players all come through the academies of the state's new modern clubs and are from all across India while Meghalaya is boosted by the pure strength of their domestic talent. It is a great amalgamation of how diverse the game is and how Vision 2047's approach can be fulfilled in two completely different ways -- by boosting local participation and inviting stronger club structures. (ANI)