India international C K Vineeth struck in the 66th minute as Kerala Blasters beat NorthEast United FC 1-0 to seal a spot for the play-offs in the Indian Super League football.
Kerala needed just a point to qualify for the semi-finals while NorthEast United would have gone if they had collected all the three points. But Kerala did not disappoint the massive 53,000-plus home crowd present at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium with Vineeth scoring the all-important goal.
The win helped Kerala finish second at the league table with 22 points from 14 matches and will now meet third-placed Delhi Dynamos in the two-leg semi-final battle. League toppers Mumbai City FC will face Atletico de Kolkata in the other semi-final.
With the loss, Northeast ended at fifth with 18 points from 14 matches.
Both teams started nervously trying to gauge each other's strengths but it were Kerala who were in command and could have surged ahead in the third minute.
Haitian international Duckens Nazon got the ball down on the left, cut past Mailson Alves and found space inside the box. However, his attempt on goal was palmed away by NorthEast goalkeeper T P Rehenesh.
Apart from that early goal-mouth action, there was not much that either team did to break the deadlock. Most of the chances came from set-pieces but the teams could not get it right. Two free-kicks of Kerala on top of the box were wasted.
In the second session, NorthEast showed more urgency. Emiliano Alfaro's effort from just inside the box saw goalkeeper Graham Stack prove equal to the challenge in the 60th minute.
The game got its decisive moment in the 66th minute. Mohammed Rafi switched play and found Vineeth on the left. The winger did well to cut inside, switch the ball to his right foot and take an unexpected grounder which beat the rival goalkeeper.
Earlier, table toppers Mumbai City FC had qualified for the semi-finals for the first time in three seasons after they outclassed defending champions Chennaiyin FC 2-0 on Wednesday.
Mumbai scored a goal in each half through Matias Defederico (32nd minute) and Krisztian Vadocz (60th), and should have won by a much bigger margin but for India captain Sunil Chhetri muffing two of the three gilt-edged chances in the last 10 minutes of the game.
Mumbai did not start the game at the frenetic pace they set during their 5-0 thrashing of Kerala Blasters at this same ground four days ago, but they clearly had the better of the exchanges with their slick passing upfront.
Chhetri, Defederico and captain Diego Forlan combined beautifully right through the game for Mumbai. The two teams had drawn 1-1 in the first leg encounter in Chennai earlier.