By Abhishek Mehrotra
Balestier were coming off a tepid run that had seen them lose to Geylang United and draw with bottom-side Courts Young Lions, but put in a solid performance to beat the Japanese outfit and rise to the top of the league - at least for an hour, until Brunei DPMM reclaimed the spot with a 1-0 win over the Young Lions in the day's other game.
Zulkiffli Hassim opened the scoring for the visitors, before Kunihiro Yamashita equalised, but Park Kang-jin's 60th-minute strike proved to be the winner for the visiting side.
Balestier took time to find their feet on a soggy pitch, and as Albirex stroked the ball around with ease, it looked like Darren Stewart's men were in for a difficult evening. But after struggling for 10 minutes, they settled in well - deploying their characteristic robustness to break up Albirex's play and making good use of their muscular frontmen to cause problems for the home side.
After threatening through Zulkiffli - the forward almost latching onto a loose ball before Takuma Ito smothered it - Balestier got their first shot away through Yusiskandar Yusop, the right-back's strike from distance flying well over Ito's crossbar.
Stewart's charges are known for their set-piece prowess, and it was through one of them that they went close as Jaslee Hatta's delivery found the towering Paul Cunningham, whose glancing header skipped past the left post, even as the referee blew the whistle for a foul on Ito.
The skipper was involved again soon after, as his long ball down the left released Zulkiffli, who did well to control and cut inside, but then dallied in getting his shot away, allowing Norihiro Kawakami to clear.
Albirex finally got some relief as Yamashita found Toshikazu Soya with a pass that split the Tigers' defence, and the latter looked to have set Masatake Sato through on goal, only for Hatta to come up with a spectacular sliding tackle.
If the home fans were hoping for a swing in fortunes after this offensive, they were to be sorely disappointed. Keeper Ito claimed the ball after a Balestier free-kick, but confusion with his subsequent throw out saw the ball land right at Zulkiffli's feet. He was still some way from goal, but even as the Albirex defence scrambled to tackle, the 26-year-old let loose with a ferocious strike that beat Ito for sheer power and slammed into the back of the net.
The impressive Zulkiffli then set up Park with a lovely cross, but the striker's header went inches wide. Albirex finally took stock and claimed for a penalty when Soya went down under an innocuous challenge from Hatta, before winning a useful free-kick halfway inside Balestier's half.
The visitors' backline managed to clear it, but the ball fell straight to Atushi Shimono. The midfielder had been an assured presence for the home side thus far, and showed his class by picking out Yamashita -who had stayed up front after the free-kick - with a superb ball. The defender showed a striker's touch, trapping the ball right in front of goal, before letting fly with a shot that Joey Sim did well to get a hand to, but couldn't keep out.
Somewhat against the run of play, Albirex were level. Balestier's pressing game was denying Koichi Sugiyama's men the time and space needed to play their slick passing game, but Sho Kamimura - the standout player for the White Swans in the first half, scythed through the otherwise-solid defence with a classy run, only to see his shot blocked by Cunningham.
Balestier had one last chance to extend their lead before the interval when Hamqamaal Shah linked up well with Zulkiffli before cutting the ball back for Park, whose first time strike flew well over the crossbar to signal the end of the first half.
Stewart's men came out charged up after the break with Ridwan Jamil, Patrick Paran and Goran Subara all getting off shots within a few minutes of the restart, before Ruhaizad Ismail's thunderous strike from nearly 30 yards out rattled Ito's crossbar. The pressure was building again on Albirex and they finally buckled on the hour mark, as Shuhei Hotta was robbed close to his own box by Zulfikki,who then played in Park. The striker showed good composure to set himself up before placing a beautiful right-footed curler right into the top corner.
Having retaken the lead, the Tigers took the foot off the pedal a bit, content to sit back and soak up the pressure with the help of their superbly organized defence. This allowed the technically-skilled Japanese outfit to play their game and with Musashi Okuyama coming on for the ineffective Yuhei Shiratori, they began to look far more dangerous.
First Okuyama played in fellow substitute Yasuhiro Yamakoshi wide on the right, only for the latter's cross to be cleared in the nick of time by Yusop even as Shimono lurked just behind. Soya then linked up well with Kamimura for the latter to send a pearler of a cross right where Yamakoshi was stationed - but the forward, with no marker to be seen for miles, somehow managed to put his header well over the crossbar.
Okuyama was involved again shortly after when yet another cross found Soya, but this time Cunningham was on hand to block the goal-bound diving header. Kamimura then almost found Keita Kobayashi with a raking through ball, but Yusiskandar was there again with a sliding challenge to deny the striker.
Having failed to make all this pressure tell, Albirex were obviously sagging - both in mind and body, with more and more space opening up in their midfield. Zulkiffli almost scored a wonder goal with a zigzag run before Hamqamaal was given acres of space on the flank. The defender's cross-cum-shot almost caught Ito by surprise, the Albirex custodian having to backpedal frantically to palm over a ball that was dipping in just below his crossbar.
Takeshi Ito tried one last desperate shot from well outside the area in a bid to restore parity, but screwed it well wide as Albirex succumbed to their second straight defeat, even as Balestier arrested their own mini-slide.
Takuma Ito, Norihiro Kawakami (c), Hidekazu Yamamoto, Kunihiro Yamashita, Takeshi Ito, Shuhei Hotta, Atsushi Shimono, Yuhei Shiratori, Masatake Sato (RMF), Sho Kamimura, Toshikazu Soya
Substitutes: Musashi Okuyama for Yuhei Shiratori (63'), Yasuhiro Yamakoshi for Masatake Sato (69'), Keita Kobayashi for Toshikazu Soya (85')
Goals: Kunihiro Yamashita (35')
Yellow Cards: Ruhaizad Ismail (67')
Joey Sim, Yusiskander Yusop, Hamqaamal Shah, Paul Cunningham, Jaslee Hatta, Ridwan Jamil, Ruhaizad Ismail, Goran Subara, Park Kang-jin, Zulkiffli Hassim, Patrick Paran.
Substitutes: Poh Yi Feng for Patrick Paran (73'), Tengku Mushadad for Ridwan Jamil (80'), Chang Jo-yoon for Yusiskandar Yusop (85')
Goals: Zulkiffli Hassim (28'), Park Kang-jin (60')