Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba (L) vies for

Introduction to Africa’s ludicrous World Cup qualifying (because it’s re-started)

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The world’s least forgiving World Cup qualifying process kicked off its second round this weekend in Africa. Forty teams drawn into 10 groups will be cut by 75 percent over the next 16 months, after which the survivors (the group winners) will be drawn into five two-legged (home-and-away) matches. The winners qualify for Brazil 2014.

It’s the only major qualifying tournament where no second place finishers advance to at least a playoff. In our neck of the woods (North America), second and third place finishers advance from the Hex (you don’t even have to win your preliminary group to make the final stage). In Europe, if you finish second in your group, you’re likely headed for a playoff. In South America, you could finish fifth an still make the show, while Asia is much like CONCACAF. As long as you keep finishing in second, you’re through.

This is the reason why Africa always has such shocking qualifying results. Egypt won three straight Cup of Nations from 2006 to 2010 yet haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1990. They didn’t even qualify for 2012’s Cup of Nations. Cameroon, Nigeria, and Algeria also missed the tournament.

It’s a ridiculously unforgiving format made all the more ludicrous by not allowing Africa’s aspirants the same margins of error that nations like Argentina, Portugal, Uruguay, France, and Mexico used to make the last World Cup. While it’s hard to call a self-imposed process unfair, in a subtle way, the format undermines the World Cup.

Africa is rarely sending its best representative(s) to the world’s most prestigious event, something that not only hurts those nations but also us fans. I sure would have liked to see Ahmed Hassan compete in a World Cup.

This weekend, with 12 nations having already been shown out of the competition in preliminaries, Africa’s World Cup qualifying began in earnest. With only six games played in each group, losses are huge.

CAF World Cup Qualifying Results – Group by Group

Group A

Results: Central African Republic 2-0 Botswana; South Africa 1-1 Ethiopia

Implications: Central African Republic sprints to the top of the group, but the big story is South Africa dropping points at home. They were the group favorites and have now opened the door for an upstart. The result will cost South Africa’s coach his job.

Forecast: In this group, South Africa still has time to recover, but they’re a long way from Brazil.

Group B

Results: Tunisia 3-1 Equitorial Guinea; Sierra Leone 2-1 Cape Verde

Implications: Form is held. Tunisia scoring three times is encouraging, especially after giving up the opener. Sierra Leoea is a side that might be dangerous, though you couldn’t tell by this score.

Predictions: Tunisia still in position to contest a spot in Brazil.

Group C

Results: Cote d’Ivoire 2-0 Tanzania; Gambia 1-1 Morocco

Implications: It was a good day for Les Elephants. They held serve at home (with goals from Didier Droba and Salomon Kalou) and saw the two teams which could surprise split points in Banjul. Gambia’s squad was undermined by withdrawals, leading to a result which should debilitate their slim World Cup dreams.

Predictions: Cote d’Ivoire has given us no reason to think they’re not going through.

Group D

Results: Ghana 7-0 Lesotho; Sudan 2-0 Zambia

Implications: Dominic Adiyiah and Jordan Ayew are scored twice as the Black Stars opened with a rout. Overall impression: Yikes. Zambia, African champions, were dealt a not-to-surprising setback in Khartoum.

Predictions: Ghana’s clearly the group’s best team, but Sudan’s served notice. The teams don’t meet until March.

Group E

Results: Burkina Faso 0-0 Congo; Niger 0-0 Gabon

Implications: A terrible result for Burkina Faso, who would have “fancied” their chances to advance when this group was drawn. They responded by being drawn by one of the tournament’s weakest teams. Gabon, on the other hand, got a valuable point against a tough opponent.

Predictions: Gabon may now have the inside track.

Group F

Results: Nigeria 1-0 Namibia; Kenya 0-0 Malawi

Implications: Malawi gets a point on the road and becomes the most likely team to unseat Nigeria, though it’s strange to think of the Super Eagles as sitting on a perch. It’s been a while since they lived up to their hype, and after failing to impress against Namibia, it look like they could be had.

Predictions: This group’s still a crapshoot. Malawi hosting Nigeria this weekend could be the group’s most important game.

Group G

Results: Egypt 2-0 Mozambique; Zimbabwe 0-1 Guinea

Implications: A huge day for the Pharaohs, but more for societal reasons than anything that will effect World Cup qualifying. The played in font of an empty stadium, the country still coping with the Port Said tragedy. As fragile as Egypt has been in past qualifying campaigns, each match is an exercise in preserving egg shells. Bob Bradley, however, was the right hire for this kind of job, though his talents will be tested this weekend at Guinea.

Predictions: Egypt’s still the favorites. A point on Saturday will cement that status.

Group H

Results: Algeria 4-0 Rwanda; Benin 1-0 Mali

Implications: Algeria could be the group’s best team, but after an unsettled period in their soccer history, this group looked wide open. An opening match trouncing of Rwanda hints the Desert Foxes could be ready for another World Cup run. In Cotonou, Benin held serve against Mali, an obligatory result against a nation experiencing so many hardships at home.

Predictions: Algeria scoring four goals can’t be ignored. They’ve reclaimed the favorite’s spot.

Group I

Results: Cameroon 1-0 Congo DR; Togo 1-1 Libya

Implications: Great point for Libya, who seem set to build on their Cup of Nations qualification. A 1-0 win at home versus Congo DR hints Cameroon remains very much a Indomitable Lion. Samuel Eto’o is still serving his suspension.

Predictions: Libya looks dangerous. Cameroon still seems uninspired. The Lions are ready to be tamed. Again.

Group J

Results: Senegal 3-1 Liberia; Angola 1-1 Uganda

Implications: As we saw from Senegal’s early Cup of Nations exit, they rarely play up to their talent. This weekend, however, they couldn’t have asked for a better start. A decisive home win coupled with a draw in the group’s other match give the Lions of Teranga sole possession of first.

Predictions: One more weekend like this, and Senegal can’t help but go through.

More Info

Gary Al-Smith’s a bit of a go to on CAF qualifying. Check out his recap and follow him on Twitter.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)