The flair of Kerala's footballers faces a stiff test against the might of Punjab's when the two former champions clash to regain the 59th Santosh Trophy at the Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi on Sunday.
The two teams are the most successful states in the history of the National Football Championship, behind 29-time winners Bengal, with Punjab winning the title six times, the last in Kollam, Kerala, in 1987-88 and Kerala emerging triumphant on four occasions, the last in Mumbai, in 2000-01.
While Kerala lived up to its billing after getting a direct seeding into the quarter-finals by overcoming Services 2-0 in the semis, Punjab came through the qualifiers and progressed to the title clash by upsetting defending champions Manipur via the tie-breaker in the second semi-final on Friday.
Both Punjab and Kerala boast of skill in their strike force, a quality defence and highly impressive goalkeepers in Kameshwar Singh and M V Nelson, who was first fielded as a stop gap measure before cementing his place with some superb show.
Kerala coach M Peethambaran has his own share of trouble with roving winger N P Pradeep forced to sit out after getting marching orders against Services.
"Titanium player K Sameer has a chance to take Pradeep's slot but we have players to back up each and every position," Peethambaran said on the eve of the final.
Peethambaran said Kerala will counter Punjab's power game with skill.
"They make more use of the aerial balls and our ploy would be to counter their power game with skill," he said.
The coach was happy with the form of his wards and took heart from their impressive performance against Services, who were out to take revenge for the semi-final defeat in Imphal in 2002.
"It was a really good performance against Services, who are one of the fittest teams [in the tournament]. But our players troubled them playing both attacking and defensive game," he said, referring to the in-form Abdul Basheer, Abdul Hakkeem, Shabeer Ali and Lionel Thomas.
"We do alter our game from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 to give more bite to the attack."
Punjab, whose squad comprises mainly JCT Mills players, also have in their ranks players from BSF and Punjab Police besides one Keralite, experienced defender JCT's K V Dhanesh.
Team manager Parminder Singh said they rate Kerala as a good team but took confidence from the win over Manipur, who fielded at least half a dozen regular India team players.
"Kerala are a really good team and the fact that they are making their fourth consecutive final speaks about the state's reserves," Parminder said.
"However we will go all out for the win," he said.
Punjab will again look for a standout performance from the defenders, marshalled by Harish Sharma. The No. 2 has impressed one and all with his timely tackles and close marking of dangerous rival forwards.
Harish played a big part in rendering Manipur's in-form forward T Narendra Singh ineffective in the semi-final till he was replaced by the coach in the second half.
So also is the form of shot stopper Kameshwar Singh, the BSF officer who hails from Imphal, the architect of Punjab's semi-final win in the tie-breaker.
Punjab will also rely on overlapping 20-year-old JCT defender Baldeep Singh, who can make inroads into the rival area with his speedy runs down the flanks.
Upfront Harvinder Singh gave able support to his skipper Gurjit Singh Atwal and so did Hardeep Gill whenever he came in as replacement.
However, the tough campaigners from North will certainly miss the services of Parveen Kumar who gave them the lead against Manipur and his place in the starting eleven would in all probability would go to Manjit Singh, who last year emerged as an outstanding potential doing duty for the Indian junior team.
Kerala's coach also acknowledged the strength of their rivals and held Punjab captain Gurjit in high esteem.
"Their No. 10 (Gurjit) is really good but we won't be focussing on particular players instead we will employ shadow marking as we consider all players as equally good," Peethambaran said.
While praising the rival striker, the coach also patted his own star player K M Abdul Naushad.
"He (Naushad) has proved his worth scoring four goals (the top scorer for Kerala) and I wonder why he has not got a call into the Indian camp so far," the coach said about the 23-year-old who plays for the State Bank of Travancore.
The bank team, which has made it to this season's National Football League has the maximum representation in the squad with nine players.
The rest of the players come from Titanium and Kerala State Electricity Board. Also there are two from Goan clubs -- Naushad Pari and goalkeeper T G Purushothaman.
The tournament, coming back to Delhi after a gap of 60 years, began on October 14 with 33 teams in the fray.
The winners will be richer by Rs 300,000 while the losers take home Rs 150,000. The man of the match in the final will get Rs 10,000.