Chinks in Karnataka's armour were exposed as they laboured to a 2-0 victory over a determined Puducherry in the South Zone qualifiers for the 72nd Santosh Trophy here on Friday.
Despite lacking precision in front of goal, the hosts dug deep and were eventually rewarded as Shahabaaz Khan (64th minute) and super sub Amoes (89th) brought them a step closer to making it to the main tournament with two wins in two games.
With six points, Karnataka head Pool A, ahead of Services on goal difference. Services defeated Telangana 2-1 in the second match of the day. Both sides come up against each other on Sunday and, while Karnataka will only need a draw to qualify, nothing short of a victory will do for the Services side.
The playing conditions at the Bangalore Football Stadium were similar for the third straight day with the sun blazing in all its glory and a gentle breeze sweeping across the ground.
Muralidharan's men, though displaying positive intent and retaining possession for sustained periods, were unable to show the killer instinct when it mattered.
The first real opportunity presented itself in the 23rd minute when forward Rajesh S and Leon Augustine engaged in a neat inter-play before the ball was laid off to Solaimalai N. The midfielder, who was the prime orchestrator for Karnataka throughout the match, failed to keep his composure and hammered his shot high and wide.
Undeterred, the home side continued to pile pressure on a well-knit Puducherry defence with waves of attacks and the closest they came was in the 39th minute.
Skipper Vignesh Gunashekar found himself one-on-one with goalkeeper P Divakar but instead of taking a crack at goal, chose to wait for Liton Shil's run into the box. The MEG striker bundled home but was adjudged off-side.
It was no different in the second half as Karnataka's forward movement was constantly thwarted by a steely Puducherry.
With 65 minutes played, Karnataka heaved a sigh of relief as left-back Shahabaaz popped up in the box to latch onto a loose ball after it rebounded off a defender. With an on-charging goalkeeper to beat, the defender slotted past him with poise.
Karnataka weren't out of the woods just as yet with Puducherry launching attacks. And they almost levelled things in when S Karunanithi lofted a ball in for Kabilan Colame. But the striker wasted a golden opportunity as he saw his header miss the target.
Any semblance of a fightback was put to rest with a minute left on the clock. Solaimalai's pinpoint pass found Amoes at the far post and, after cushioning the ball down, the striker volleyed home emphatically to bag all three points for Karnataka.
Meanwhile, an 89th-minute strike from defender Laishram Herojit Singh helped Services sink a gritty Telangana in the day's second fixture. The defence unit took the lead through Nanish Singh in the 25th minute but Kumar Dhanala equalised for Telangana in the 59th minute before Herojit settled the issue late in the game.
Saturday's fixture: Andhra vs Tamil Nadu (4 pm)