It took the gentlest of nods from Yusuf Yakubu to finally unlock the gates to the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd citadel and give Mahindra United an unconvincing 1-0 victory over the gallant Bengaluru side in a seventh round NFL match at the Cooperage, in Mumbai, on Thursday.
The talismanic Ghanaian's fourth strike in the tournament hauled the defending champions to the top of the table with 14 points, courtesy a superior goal difference over East Bengal, who have the same number of points.
HAL continue to languish in ninth spot with six points after suffering their third defeat.
Yakubu's strike came from a corner kick, taken by substitute Rauf Khan, in the 71st minute, which was flicked on by the up-and-coming N P Pradeep after Balaji stayed rooted to his line.
This was the only blemish in the HAL custodian's copybook. Otherwise, he kept his side in contention with a few saves and several timely interceptions.
It was actually the visiting side that impressed in the first half as they struck a purple patch right from the kick-off and made repeated inroads into the enemy territory.
HAL striker Xavier Vijay Kumar harried the makeshift Mahindra defence, where Surkumar Singh was doubling up for injured Mahesh Gawli in central position.
The HAL defence at the other end, especially rugged stopper back, Pawan Kumar, effectively neutralised Mahindra's ploy of beginning with the tall Abhishek Yadav and Andrew Mensah upfront and Yakubu playing in the hole.
Mensah was again the wayward child, failing to take his chances even as the skilful Yakubu schemed and dribbled around to create them.
Yakubu could have got on the scoreboard in the dying seconds of the first half, but his snap shot from inside the box hit the crossbar and went out.
The champions now take on East Bengal at home on March 16 while the Bangalore side will host JCT FC on March 5.