(photo credit: asaf kliger)
Betar Jerusalem gave new chairman Eli Arazi the New Year's gift he was hoping for with a 2-0 victory over Hapoel Kfar Saba at Teddy Stadium on Sunday night.
Betar needed a win to return to first place in the standings following Ashdod SC's victory at Hapoel Petah Tikva on Saturday. Betar and Ashdod are tied on 28 points, but Betar holds the edge in goal difference.
Kfar Saba, managed by former Betar great Eli Ohana, provided a typically limp performance that handed all three points to Yossi Mizrahi's side.
Barak Itzhaki scored the first for the hosts after 17 minutes and Milovan Mirosevic sealed the victory three minutes later with a virtuoso effort.
Itzhaki returned to Betar's front line after a two-month absence due to injury and took the place of Argentinian Christian Fabiani, who left the club last week.
In the tense opening minutes, Betar controlled the game with Itzhaki and Toto Tamuz proving to be a handful for the Kfar Saba defense.
The first shot came on 12 minutes when Mirosevic played the ball in to Michael Zandberg, who skipped into the Kfar Saba defense and forced a solid save from goalkeeper Ohad Levita.
The resulting corner kick landed at the feet of central defender Shimon Gershon, who was unlucky to see his shot thunder against the crossbar.
The action roused the half-full Teddy Stadium and inspired the team in yellow and black to surge forward looking for the opener.
Seventeen minutes into the match, Tamuz found Itzhaki alone on the edge of the penalty area but the young striker scuffed his shot, which was easily held by Levita. The young 'keeper is a temporary replacement for Oshri Levy, who was released from the team and is being investigated by the police for alleged match-fixing.
Three minutes later, Itzhaki made amends, putting the hosts ahead after he turned in a Yoav Ziv cross, although the ball appeared to take a deflection off Avichai Yadin.
Kfar Saba, which had won at Teddy toward the end of last season, appeared to have no reply and soon Betar doubled its lead.
Itzhaki played a clever pass through to Mirosevic, who managed to jink the ball over two Kfar Saba defenders and volley it into the net, scoring a goal reminiscent of Paul Gascoigne's for England against Scotland in Euro '96.
It was difficult to see the visitors making a comeback, especially as Betar continued to push forward. By the end of the first 45 minutes, Kfar Saba hadn't even had a shot on goal.
At the start of the second half, Ohana brought on attacking midfielder Ben Luz for Auza Abu Bakri in an attempt to find a way back into the match.
His plan seemed to be working when just two minutes into the second period, Jose Duarte had a shot on goal which went just wide of Betar 'keeper Itzik Kornfein. A minute later, Samuel Yeboah fired one over the bar and the hosts were a little rattled.
As the half continued, the greens managed to get themselves back into the match with a number of attacks that produced nervous moments for Betar. Luz was at the center of the action, controlling the midfield and playing clever passes which evaded the hosts. Although Yeboah hit a number of shots well over the bar, the local supporters were becoming visibly concerned.
Yeboah came close to pulling one back but his stinging shot from just outside the six-meter box was saved well by Kornfein 14 minutes into the second half.
Betar immediately responded. Ziv was unlucky to miss with a half-volley from outside the area and Zandberg came close with a shot from inside the box, both forcing saves.
With 25 minutes to go, Tamuz was taken off by Mizrahi and replaced by Amit Ben-Shushan. Despite the introduction of the Israeli international, the game descended into a stifling midfield battle.
Betar made two more substitutions, with Aviram Bruchian and Joano Pinto coming on for Zandberg and Itzhaki to try and liven up what had become a slow game, but there was little action in the final 15 minutes.