Goalkeeper Kameshwar Singh broke the hearts of thousands of Manipur fans on Friday with two superb saves in the tie-breaker as Punjab edged past the defending champions 4-3 (1-1 after extra-time) to move into the final of the 59th Indian Oil-National Football Championship, for the Santosh Trophy, in Delhi.
Six-time champions Punjab will challenge last year's finalists and four-time winners Kerala on Sunday in a repeat of the 1987-88 final at Kollam, which Punjab won on penalties.
In an edge of the seat thriller, which ended goalless after regulation time, Punjab took the lead in the 11th minute of extra-time through Parveen Kumar before the defending champions equalised when Indian footballer of the year Tomba Singh curled home a free-kick in the 23rd minute.
Manipur coach Ratankumar Singh replaced Horen Singh in goal with K Bijen Singh at the beginning of the second half of extra-time and the move almost worked as the stout 'keeper sent the fans into raptures, stopping the first kick in the tie-breaker by Punjab striker Harvinder Singh after substitute Tikken Singh put his side 1-0 up.
Then it was the turn of Kameshwar, who incidentally hails from Imphal, to stun the near capacity crowd, as he effected two diving saves -- first to the left and then the other side -- to deny James Singh and Raju Singh.
Manipur converted their fourth and fifth kicks through Bijen Singh and Dharamjit Singh but then the damage had already been done as Daljit Singh, skipper Gurjit Singh Atwal and Harish Sharma made no mistake from the spot.
With Punjab leading 3-2, after both teams took four shots each, there was intense pressure on Dharamjit, but he scored to keep Manipur alive.
Harish then rose to the occasion with a powerful shot that stopped heartbeats for a second when it struck the inside of the right post before ricocheting to the left corner of the net to trigger celebrations among the handful of Punjab fans.
The entire Punjab team ran to celebrate the victory and congratulate Harish as inconsolable Manipur fans quietly trooped out.
Their only consolation was that the man of the match award was won by Tomba Singh.
It was exciting stuff throughout the 120 minutes of play with both Manipur and Punjab dishing out exciting soccer.
The beginning of extra-time saw Punjab forwards Harvinder and Gurjit troubling the rivals and Manipur responding through quick counter attacks.
Ten minutes into extra time Punjab forced their fifth corner of the match. As Manipur thought they had averted the danger, Harish got the ball outside the box and essayed a superb floater into the box. Parveen Kumar, who was lurking at the near post, found the net with a fine header to give Punjab a 1-0 lead.
But the defending champions believed in their abilities and replied after a wave of attacks, conducted by star midfielders Tomba, James and Dharamjit.
After the change of ends, Manipur went all the more on the offensive and three minutes into the session they earned two free-kicks.
James came close to scoring with the first one, which narrowly missed the mark, and he hit the crosspiece from the second set-piece, which was awarded by referee S Suresh after Manipur skipper Bijen Singh went down.
As action changed ends, Parveen picked his first yellow card and soon Punjab went really close to their second goal. He move was initiated by Harvinder, who advanced through the left and relayed the ball to substitute Hardeep Gill. Gill tested the Manipur 'keeper with a first-timed shot that was saved. The rebound came up nicely to another substitute, Manjit Singh, but the talented youngster failed to score from close as his header hit the upright.
Manipur were determined not to disappoint their passionate fans as they stormed forward with drums and crackers providing the backdrop.
It was James again through the left and it ended in a free-kick when he was brought down by Parveen. The offence also got the latter marching orders following a second yellow card and gave Manipur another chance to restore parity.
This time Tomba took the kick and the wily medio beat the wall and Kameshwar Singh with a stunning shot that saw the ball find the left side of the net in the blink of an eye.
The goal sent Manipur fans into another orbit as crackers went around the stadium one after the other and it gave a new sting to Manipur's moves.
The Manipur fans once again went into delirium when substitute Tikken Singh found the net off a pass by substitute Rajesh Metei. But the celebrations came to a quick halt as the referee disallowed the goal on technical grounds, as Tikken's boot also flew into the goal along with the ball.