Defending champions Kerala, despite having the advantage of playing in front of home crowd, have a Herculean task when they take on formidable Maharashtra in the first semi-final of the Santosh Trophy, National Football Championship, in Kochi on Friday.
Maharashtra are in good form and dished out decent performances throughout. In their last quarter-final league match they stunned 29-time champions West Bengal 2-0 to make it to the last four stage. In their opening match they defeated Services 5-3.
The former champions are pinning hopes on their star striking combination of international Abhishek Yadav and Soccoro Velho, who has shown great promise throughout the tourney. Their defence, led by Clifford Kilmo, Hekmat Singh and Rauf Khan, haven't given opposing strikers any chance to dribble in, while midfielders Steven Dias and Paresh Shivalkar were outstanding.
On the other hand, Kerala began unimpressively in their opener against Uttar Pradesh and narrowly escaped with a solitary second half goal victory. But they showed improvement in their next match, against a not-so-strong Delhi, before winning 3-0.
Their main worry is their strikers -- Mohammed Rafi and Abdul Hakkim -- who have been off-colour. Rafi has impressed with his speed, but lacks accuracy while Hakkim, though hescored a goal in the match against Delhi, hasn't played to potential.
Kerala are hoping that both Rafi and Hikkim strike form in the all-important match; if they click, then Maharashtra goalkeeper Israt Kamal, who excelled in the quarter-finalleague, will have to work overtime.
Anoptimistic Peethambaran, the Kerala coach said, "We will go all out for the win. We will try hundred percent. The team has found their rhythm and is set now.
"Playingin front of home crowd is advantageous for Kerala," he said, adding "Maharashtra is a very good side and Kerala will have to really work hard.
"Ourforwards were able to penetrate the rival defence, but somehow missed chances."
Theside has no injury problems. Medio Ajayan, who is experiencing pain in the neck, is expected to be fit for the match, he said.
Keralacaptain M V Nelson, who is playing his seventh Santosh Trophy for the state, expressed optimism.
"Theteam has found its rhythm. We are set now. We will go all out for a win."
Starstriker I M Vijayan, had a poor match against Uttar Pradesh in the opener, wherein he was even substituted. He did not play in the next match against Delhi, and his presence in the crucial tie might boost the morale of the side.
The match starts at 1900hours.