Punjab is the favourite after defending champions Kerala, Goa and 32-time winner West Bengal failed to make it to the knockout rounds. But Meghalaya have punched above their weight and surprised many by topping Group V in the preliminary round ahead of Odisha and then finishing second behind Services in the Final Round to make it to the last-four stage.
Punjab have the pedigree — they have won the Santosh Trophy eight times and have also finished runner-up on as many occasions. Their last title came in 2007-08 while Meghalaya have made their maiden entry into the semifinals. They have always lived in the shadows of neighbours Manipur and Mizoram while the talents from Sikkam have made it big at the national stage.
The National Football Championships has returned to action for the second year in a row after two editions in 2019-20 and 2020-21 were not held due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Having made it thus far from among 36 teams that started the tournament, Punjab and Meghalaya are hoping to put up their best to make it to the final, adding a new chapter in their state’s football history.
Punjab came up with a consistent performance in the preliminary stage, winning four and drawing one of the five matches they played in Group VI. They finished ahead of former champions Manipur, whom they defeated 1-0 in their first league match. Paramjit Singh is their top scorer with three goals while Amarpreet Singh contributed two goals. They were held 1-1 by Chandigarh but the win against Manipur helped them finish ahead of the team from North-East. In all Punjab scored 11 goals and conceded only one.
Meghalaya also topped their preliminary stage group with three wins and two draws, scoring 17 goals and allowing only two to be scored against them. Meghalaya qualified for the semifinals by finishing second behind Services in Group B in the Final Round.
Meghalaya are the Cinderella team of the 76th National Football Championship for Santosh Trophy, having made it to the semifinals against all hopes.
They have beaten strong teams like Manipur and West Bengal on their way to the last-four stage and their lone defeat had come against fellow semifinalists Services. It is this ability to surprise their opponents, which has held them in good stead so far, is what Meghalaya head coach Khlain Pyrkhat Syiemlieh is banking on.
"We have beaten a team like Bengal in the final round in Bhubaneswar so I feel we can beat Punjab. We can beat any team on our day," he said.
Punjab head coach Harpreet Saini says his players are focused on their job and that is to win the title. "Everyone is so thrilled to have come to Riyadh and participate in the Hero Santosh Trophy. It’s the time to be focussed on the job, what we are here for."
The match is expected to be a well-fought affair and both teams are determined. While Punjab have to live up to their tag of favourites, Meghalaya have nothing to lose, they can go all out and continue their Cinderella Run.