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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.

17-year-old Donnarumma could leave AC Milan over contract dispute

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 13:  AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gestures during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on February 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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AC Milan has developed a teenage sensation, but they might not be able to keep him.

Young goalkeeping sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma could find himself on the open market this summer after reports that his agent Mino Raiola has balked at AC Milan’s contract offer.

Donnarumma is just 17 years old and has been hailed as the successor to Gianluigi Buffon’s goalkeeping throne, earning the first-place job at one of Europe’s biggest clubs this season. However, according to Italian publication Calcio Mercato, Milan offered Donnarumma just $2.6 million a year, while Raiola is reportedly seeking twice that.

Milan’s caution is understandable given Donnarumma’s extremely youth at a position that usually sees players rise and fall at a later age, but the teenager has already become a sensation in Italy, and Railoa is looking to capitalize on his popularity.

However, it’s not just sensationalism that Raiola is hoping to pounce on. According to Squawka Statistics’ Performance Index, Donnarumma has performed as the second-best goalkeeper in Serie A this season behind Wojciech Szczesny. If AC Milan doesn’t wish to pay its young star, it’s likely that someone out there will – rather handsomely.

Premier League money could be enticing for both the player and his agent who has already made a fortune negotiating big-money deals for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Mario Balotelli, and plenty others. Manchester City could be after a young goalkeeper to challenge the struggling Claudio Bravo, while the Manchester United sticks could be left vacant if David De Gea ever makes his way to Spain as is annually rumored.

Either way, Donnarumma deserves to be paid, based both on his fantastic performances this season at the San Siro and the subsequent popularity he has gained as the successor to one of the games great goalkeepers.

Europa League: Spurs sent packing, Ajax advances, Gladbach comes back

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur reacts during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 second leg match between Tottenham Hotspur and KAA Gent at Wembley Stadium on February 23, 2017 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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Tottenham Hotspur was sent home in the Europa League Round of 32 after a 2-2 draw with Belgian side Gent at Wembley Stadium, leaving them down 3-2 on aggregate.

Christian Eriksen and Victor Wanyama scored for Spurs, but the road back was too long after Dele Alli was sent off in the 39th minute for a horrible challenge on Brecht Dejaegere that left the referee with no choice but to show the English international the first straight red card of his career.

With Spurs down to 10 men for the majority of the match, they were still able to press forward and pummel the Gent penalty area, but they wasted chances and were open on the counter, and that’s how they struck. With Spurs leading 2-1 and pressing for the third they needed to advance, Jeremy Prebert followed up his goal in the first leg with one in the second, punishing Spurs for throwing men forward to settle things in the 82nd minute.

Elsewhere, Ajax advanced thanks to a goal from Nick Viergever who bagged the only score of either leg in the 49th minute after Legia Warsaw goalkeeper Arkadiusz Malarz spilled an initial shot from Amin Younes. The Dutch side is through to the Round of 16 for the second time in the last three years.

Fiorentina held a 1-0 lead over Borussia Monchengladbach after the first leg, and they scored twice in the first half of the second leg, but the German side shattered that with a remarkable comeback. Finding themselves down 3-0, Gladbach scored four times in 16 minutes to put themselves into the Round of 16 on a 4-3 aggregate score. Lars Stindl was the man of the hour, as he scored a hat-trick, including one from the penalty spot to start the comeback. The incredible stunt was completed by an Andreas Christensen header in the 60th minute, and Gladbach held on from there to advance.

AS Roma eased into the Round of 16 thanks to their huge first-leg advantage, falling 1-0 to Villareal but still advancing 4-1 on aggregate.

Anderlecht clung on to a Round of 16 place in thrilling fashion despite falling 3-1 to Zenit St. Petersburg, moving on thanks to an away goal after a 3-3 aggregate draw. 24-year-old Swede Isaac Kiese Thelin scored in the 90th minute in Russia to give Anderlecht the away goal it needed.

Lyon obliterated Dutch side AZ Alkmaar 7-1 en route to a huge 11-2 aggregate victory. Nabil Fekir scored a hat-trick, while Maxwel Cornet, Sergi Darder, Houssem Aouar, Mouctar Diakhaby all bagged goals as well to put the French club through with ease.

Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia earned a come-from-behind berth in the Round of 16 despite being reduced to 10 men with a half-hour to go. After a 3-2 defeat in Spain, they scored two at home to beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 and advance 4-3 on aggregate. Pieros Soteriou and Giannis Gianniotas scored before the hour mark, and while Soteriou was sent off for a second yellow in the 65th minute, Apoel held on for the slim win as Athletic needed two more to advance.

Celta Vigo completed a comeback over Ukranian giants Shakhtar Donetsk. Down 1-0 after the first leg in Spain, Celta hit the road and seemed on its way out until Iago Aspas hit from the penalty spot in injury time, forcing extra time where they scored again via Gustavo Cabral which saw them through.

The Round of 16 draw will be Friday at 7 a.m. ET, while the matches begin on March 9th.

RESULTS(team in bold advances)

Tottenham 2-2 KAA Gent
AS Roma 0-1 Villareal
Fiorentina 2-4 Borussia Monchengladbach
Ajax 1-0 Legia Warsaw
Zenit St. Petersburg 3-1 Anderlecht
Shakhtar Donetsk 0-2 Celta Vigo (AET)
Lyon 7-1 AZ Alkmaar
Osmanlispor 0-3 Olympiakos
Apoel Nicosia 
2-0 Athletic Bilbao
FC Copenhagen 0-0 Ludogorets
Racing Genk 1-0 Astra Giurgiu
Sparta Prague 1-1 FC Rostov
Besiktas 
2-1 Hapoel Be’er Sheva

How Twitter reacted to Leicester City firing Claudio Ranieri

SEVILLE, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City reacts on the touchline during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Sevilla FC and Leicester City at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 22, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Claudio Ranieri was fired by Leicester City on Thursday, just a point above the relegation zone a season removed from one of the most improbable title runs in sports history.

While there’s been noise of the possibility for weeks, the decision still uncorked plenty of emotions from people in England and around the world. Just as the title did less than a year ago, people had strong feelings about Leicester’s choice to remove its best-ever manager.

Some suggested that winning the Premier League is now a tainted award, with the last two managers to win (Mourinho, Ranieri) both fired during the following season. Others expressed rage towards Leicester City for treating a legend of the game so harshly so soon after his incredible accomplishment.

[ MORE: Firing Claudio Ranieri was the correct decision ]

Some still suggested that the decision was correct, and still does not take away from what last season brought the Premier League history books.

See the most notable takes on what remains a controversial move by the Foxes:

Claudio Ranieri dug his own grave at Leicester City

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Christian Fuchs of Leicester City reacts during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Leicester City at the Vitality Stadium on December 13, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri admitted last week that he’s been too loyal to his title-winning players who aren’t performing up to standards this season. He followed that up by handing starting spots to out-of-form Christian Fuchs, Jamie Vardy, and Wes Morgan in the Champions League loss to Sevilla.

Now Ranieri has been sacked. It’s a sad story, but it’s easy to see why.

Should the eventual replacement truly hope to salvage Leicester City’s Premier League status, he must do what Ranieri failed to, and what he will be better equipped to do: put aside loyalties built from overachieving last season and and sit both Fuchs and Morgan, two critical players from last season’s incredible run who have sorely underperformed since. Just against Sevilla on Wednesday, Morgan gave away a blatant penalty with an ugly, petulant hack at Joaquin Correa’s legs, while Fuchs completely misjudged a cross en route to Pablo Sarabia’s opening goal.

Both have been equally as miserable in Premier League play. Morgan, the Leicester City captain, has looked every bit of his 33 years old, lumbering around the pitch unable to keep up with attackers slicing through the box. His successful tackle percentage is just 33%, and his pass accuracy is 69%, a shambolic combination for a defender. Fuchs, meanwhile, has been just as bad. Turning 31 himself in April, Fuchs was one of the worst players on the pitch in the 3-0 loss to Manchester United, and was yanked at halftime in the 2-0 loss to Swansea as he continued to struggle.

It’s surprising that Ranieri had kept faith in the two players after his comments on loyalty. One of the truest managers to his word in European soccer, the Italian said two weeks ago, “I could be [too loyal], could be. It is difficult when you achieve something so good, you want to give them one chance, two chances, three chances. Maybe now, it is too much. Of course I must change something because it is not possible to continue in this way.” He never backed up his words.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Ranieri had started his two aging defenders time and time again hoping they will recapture last season’s lightning. That’s flat out not happening. Just prior to Ranieri’s comments on loyalty, I wrote about how the failing defense was most responsible for this season’s struggles. Since that moment, despite both the obvious shortcomings of which were written and the manager’s statement on failing loyalty, nothing has changed.

Now, after they struggled again midweek, the two must sit immediately to avoid the otherwise inevitable. The last time Christian Fuchs started the game on the bench was the last time Leicester City won in the league, when young Ben Chilwell started at left-back and the Foxes shut out West Ham. Wes Morgan hasn’t sat a single minute in Premier League play, but he was rested for an FA Cup win over Derby County plus the subsequent loss to Millwall.

No, the manager can’t step out on the field and perform. He must be judged by the players he puts on the pitch, his tactics on the field, and his man-management off the pitch. Ranieri will always have last season, but he never left the title run behind. With Fuchs and Morgan – and to an extend Vardy as well – failing to perform to the standards of a Premier League team, Ranieri failed to leave last season in context and base his decisions in the present on what stared him right in the face.

Obviously this won’t solve the problem up front, with the Foxes still goalless in league play since Islam Slimani‘s winner against West Ham an appalling 610 minutes ago. The midfield is being overrun, the attack can’t deliver a competent cross, and set pieces appear to be the only time Leicester looks dangerous. Still, if the Foxes are to give themselves a chance of survival, now it’s up to the new manager to do what is right.

Claudio Ranieri will always be remembered for what he was able to achieve rather than what he was not. There’s plenty that isn’t his fault: the full makeup of the squad, the sale of N'Golo Kante, the failure by the board to truly spend the newfound coffers wisely. The end to the Italian’s Leicester City story is a sad, harsh one, but he only has himself to blame.