East Bengal returned to winning ways with a confident 3-0 drubbing of the Punjab visitor JCT Mills in an 18th round encounter of the I-League at the Salt Lake Stadium here on Wednesday. Baljit Sahni struck twice while Ravinder Singh completed East Bengal's dominance of JCT.
The return of three of its in-from regulars seemed to turn the fortune of the city giant which, having ended the first phase on top of the league standings, had slumped into a crisis at the start of the second phase.
The team, missing the majority of its foreigners and some of its key regulars, had picked up just one out of a possible nine points by drawing one and losing two of its previous three engagements. The win against JCT, which was the first for it in the second phase, brought East Bengal back into the title hunt.
Looking determined to get out of the slump, East Bengal went all out for an early break. The return of Nigerians — midfielder Orji Penn and defender Uga Okpara — and former India international Mehtab Hussain (midfielder) gave the necessary fillip to the team's morale. Aided by a more active midfield, East Bengal was quick to find the lead, which came near the half-hour mark.
Sahni, replacing the regular Robin Singh (who is away on national duty) in the East Bengal attack, justified his inclusion with a brilliant solo effort. The skills of the former JCT striker was in full view as he neatly trapped a long lob from Sanju Pradhan, dodged his marker with an inside-dribble, and found the net with a rasping grounder in the following action.
Reassured with the 28th-minute goal, East Bengal launched regular attacks but could not reproduce the desired finish leaving the scoreline unaltered till late into the second session.
It required another inspired performance from Penn in the 74th minute to bring the host back to life. The Nigerian scripted East Bengal's second goal as he made a darting run down the right, outran the onrushing JCT defender Gurtej Singh, and set up a neat cross that Sahni finished with a diving header.
Having doubled the lead, East Bengal went for a bigger margin, which was realised in the 77th minute when Ravinder Singh brilliantly bent his right-footed attempt to help the ball home into the top corner of the JCT goal.
The win took East Bengal's tally to 35 points from 17 matches while JCT continued among the bottom-parked teams with 14 points gained from its 17 outings.