International Soccer: Betar's Itzhaki returns to Israel squad

Captain Benayoun expected to come back from injury to lead national team vs Greece.

barak itzhaki 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
barak itzhaki 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
With just a week and a half to go until the crucial World Cup qualifying doubleheader against Greece, Betar Jerusalem striker Barak Itzhaki has returned to the international frame. The 24-year-old has not played for the national team since the 1-0 friendly win over Chile in March last year, but his recent up turn in form has impressed coach Dror Kashtan enough to include him in the squad for the which was announced on Tuesday. Israel hosts the Greeks on March 28 before travelling to play in Greece four days later on April 1. Itzhaki, who has scored nine goals in the yellow and black of Betar so far this season, left Jerusalem for six months at the start of last year when he transferred to Belgian side Genk before returning to Betar in July. Injured Liverpool midfielder Yossi Benayoun was one of nine overseas-based players chosen for the squad, and one of three who ply their trade in the English Premier League. Benayoun missed Liverpool's recent wins against Real Madrid and Manchester United because of a torn hamstring, but Kashtan remains hopeful he will be fit for the crucial qualifiers. Israel is second in the six-team Group 2 with eight points from four games, one point behind leader Greece. The two games against Greece will be criticial for Israel's chances of making it to a first World Cup finals since 1970, when it only had to beat Australia and New Zealand to qualify. The team which finishes top after all ten games qualifies directly for the World Cup finals in South Africa next summer, while the second-placed team will play in playoff against a team which finishes second in another group. There were a number of expected omissions in the squad, including Sivasspor striker Pini Balil who has not played many minutes for the Turkish club lately and Maccabi Haifa forward Yaniv Katan. Bolton Wanderers midfielder Tamir Cohen was included, however, despite not playing a single game for his club this season. "It's great to be back in the squad," Cohen said. "This is my home. I want to thank Dror [Kashtan] and [assistant coach] Moshe [Sinai] for giving me this chance. I hope I won't disappoint them. I'll give my all to the national team." The squad will begin training at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Tuesday. The Premier League clash between Betar Jerusalem and Maccabi Netanya has been moved from Monday to Sunday at Kashtan's request in order to give the players time to rest ahead of the build up to the national team games.