Pune, Nov 10 (IBNS) Harmanjot Singh Khabra struck a goal apiece on either side of the half-time as East Bengal blanked Air India 3-0 to move to No 2 position in the I-League football championship table after their Round V match at the Balewadi Sports Complex Stadium here on Saturday.
Air India which lost their fourth match from five encounters, slipped one position down to 13th, one below Mumbai FC.
Khabra scored in the 37th and 64th minutes to underline East Bengal's dominance as Trevor Morgan showed his strategy to start with 3-3-4 formation with Edeh Chidi, Manandeep Singh and Ishfaq Ahmed in front paid off.
Penn Orji scored in the 75th minute to complete the rout, a result that left the fight for the top three positions wide open.
From the start, East Bengal raised the tempo of the match taking control of the Air India forte after Henry Ezeh missed a chance for the home side in the 26th minute. Henry had the ball with him with no defender to challenge him, but his hasty drive off the left foot went way off the post.
Air India showed some resilience, but their efforts came in patches. Pune-bred Prakash Thorat tried his best to live up to the expectation of his vocal supporters, but in vain.
In the 30th minute, Thorat was well-placed in the box, but his header flew over the post leaving Air India coach Godfrey Pereira rue the missed chance. By this time, East Bengal had the measure of the Air India defence and the Kolkata side began moving up with midfielders Penn Orji and Mehtab Hossain sending neat through passes for the striking trio of chance upon.
East Bengal's effort soon bore results as Harmanjot Khabra ran down the flank to surprise Air India defence before slotting in the first goal for the Kolkata outfit.
Five minutes later, Manandeep Singh was in with a chance, but his strike went in vain. In between Thorat did enthrall his motley supporters with some good runs upfront. But his efforts were negated by the strong defence line put up by East Bengal with Arnab Mondal and Uga Okpara manning the post with gusto.
In the added time of the first half, Vijith Shetty's over-exuberance earned him a yellow card that was totally avoidable.
On changing ends, Morgan went for substitutions and that proved fruitful. First to be replaced was Ishfaq Ahmed who was replaced by Sanju Pradhan in the 58th minute and then Manandeep was called to the bench putting Lalrindika Ralte into action in the very next minute.
The changes upfront gave fresh legs and new ideas for East Bengal attack and it was again Khabra who chanced on a loose ball to put the Kolkata team 2-0 up. Khabra then missed scoring an hat-trick when his attempted header was palmed out.
Air India coach Pereira went for substitution in the 70th minute putting Elijah Junior in for Pradeep Mohanraj before and Souvik Chakrabarty was called out to give Ong Lepcha a chance in the middle.
But that didn't really help Air India and East Bengal fired third goal through Penn Orji that really settled the tempo of the match.