AFC Cup playoff: Diego Mauricio hat-trick powers Odisha into Asia after 3-1 win over Gokulam Kerala

Odisha FC earned the right to a maiden AFC Cup campaign with a 3-1 win over Gokulam Kerala in their playoff encounter at the EMS Stadium in Kozhikode on Saturday.

Diego Mauricio grabbed a hat-trick for the ISL side, who featured in this playoff encounter on account of their 2023 Super Cup win a few days ago, while Gokulam Kerala's 2021-22 I-League winning campaign saw them battle Odisha.

Odisha FC will feature in the group stage of the 2023-24 AFC Cup and may potentially be joined by ATK Mohun Bagan or Hyderabad FC, who feature in another playoff on May 4, which will grant them entry into the preliminary rounds of the AFC Cup.

Odisha started the game on the front foot and asserted their superiority over their I-League opponents, who quickly earned two yellow cards for their defensive troubles. Gokulam forced Amrinder Singh into a fine save moments later, but Odisha continued to up the ante.

Diego Mauricio restored Odisha's dominance with a well-taken goal in the 18th minute, running onto Victor Rodriguez's pass after bending his run and putting it past Shibin Raj in the GKFC goal.

The Brazilian striker was at it again minutes past the half-hour mark, doubling Odisha's lead with some stellar solo work in the buildup, going past five defenders before smashing it past Shibin at the near post.

With the ISL side seemingly cruising, Gokulam Kerala struck back via Farshad Noor, who headed home from Thahir Zaman's cross in the 36th minute to drag his side back into the game.

Yet, Odisha resisted GKFC's momentum to go into the break with the lead. Saul Crespo and Dene Meitei replaced Osama Malik and Sahil Panwar at the break as Clifford Miranda brought on some fresh legs.

Victor Rodriguez, who had hit the frame of the goal in the first half, saw his misfortune continue right at the start of the second half, finding the upright with a strike from a corner.

Odisha didn't have to wait too long though, with Pawan Kumar Drall's tug on Mauricio's shirt on the edge of the box resulting in the referee pointing to the spot. The Brazilian brought up his hattrick with a confidently-taken penalty in the 53rd minute, taking his season's tally to 22 goals.

Sergio Mendigutxia forced Amrinder into another fine save minutes later, with the I-League side ramping up the pressure, as Abdul Hakku went close after the hour-mark. Miranda responded by bringing on Aniket Jadhav and Paul Ramfangzauva, with Nandhakumar Sekar going close in the 73rd minute.

The game petered out as GKFC laboured in search of a second goal, but with Miranda's side keeping the ball with ease and controlling the tempo of the game, there was little chance of a comeback.

Five minutes of injury time were seen out as Odisha confirmed their win and their progression into Asia - a massive week that saw them win their maiden trophy as well as confirm their first continental campaign.