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.

Surprises, disappointments halfway through Champions League group stage

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Clubs have met each of their group mates once, giving us an imperfect but workable sample size for the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League group stage.

Five groups have a side boasting a 3-0 record, while four clubs have yet to seize a single point.

[ CHAMPS LEAGUE: Tuesday | Weds. ]

Some of the strugglers, like 0-1-2 Maribor and 0-1-2 APOEL, are not surprises. And it’s no shock to see Manchester United at perfect 3-0 given its draw.

Others? Well, that’s not the case.

Status down 

While Manchester United is a perfect 3-0 in Group A, raise your hand if you figured Benfica would have just one goal and zero points through three matches. Benfica’s also played two of its three home ties, making the knockout rounds a dream.

Atletico Madrid has found the UEFA Champions League Final in two of the last four seasons, but finds itself with work to do moving forward. Atleti’s Wednesday draw at Qarabag leaves it three points behind Roma and five back of leaders Chelsea. Diego Simeone’s men still host Roma and Qarabag, so points are out there.

Serie A play has been gorgeous for Napoli, who has failed to bring that momentum to Group F. It’s worth noting that a missed penalty by red-hot Dries Mertens could’ve earned the Neapolitans a point at Man City on Tuesday, but as it stands Napoli is three points back of Shakhtar and could be six back before the Ukrainians visit on Nov. 21.

It turns out you can’t sell everyone and expect the youth to come through shining. Monaco is at the bottom of a very winnable group, having lost at home to Porto and Besiktas. Still just three points behind RB Leipzig, they’ll need to win at Monaco and/or Besiktas to have any hope of the knockout rounds.

Borussia Dortmund got a rough deal from officials when it visited Wembley Stadium, but losses to Spurs and Real Madrid can happen in a group stage. Tuesday’s draw at APOEL Nicosia, however, is close to a backbreaker.

(Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images).

Status up

Spurs draw at Real Madrid may have been aided by a huge performance from Hugo Lloris, but goalkeepers — as you know — are actual components of a team. This is in fact a group of death, but the North Londoners are holding a scythe. If Mauricio Pochettino can lead a home win over Real Madrid at a raucous Wembley on All Saints Day, well, look out!

Cenk Tosun has gone from sleepy transfer target to the tip of many gossipers’ tongues, as Besiktas is a perfect 3-0 including wins at Monaco and Porto. Anderson Talisca and… wait for it… Ryan Babel (!!) have also starred for the Turkish powers who will almost certainly see the knockout rounds.

[ MORE: JPW sits down with Ederson ]

Pep Guardiola‘s done this Champions League dance, you know, and Manchester City has weathered all storms. That includes conceded two penalties — one was saved by Ederson — as a down performance versus Napoli still ended with a home win. If City can win at the Stadio San Paolo on Nov. 1, Pep can sleepwalk into the final two matches (though that’s not his style).

Roma has a classy draw at Chelsea and has gathered five points including four away from home. Mimic that mark and i Lupi will be a challenge in the knockout rounds.

Neymar was best pals with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez last season at Barcelona, but having a less-than-perfect relationship with Edinson Cavani hasn’t hurt a thing in Paris. Paris Saint-Germain is for real, scoring 12 times and yet to concede in wins over Bayern Munich, Celtic, and Anderlecht.

Grey area

Liverpool leads its group and advancing is really the only goal, but there’s something off-putting about the home draw against Sevilla. The 1-1 draw at Spartak Moscow looks better now that the Russians hammered Sevilla 5-1, but a return visit from Maribor next should help the Reds buttress their stock.

Be careful how finely you analyze a club as accomplished as two-time reigning champs Real Madrid, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s men don’t look so hot. Still well-positioned to move on, keep a close eye on how they look at Wembley in a few weeks.

Holding pattern

Chelsea‘s 3-3 draw versus Roma today was its first real stumble of the UCL, but there shouldn’t be too many alarm bells considering their injury problems and Roma’s desperation. Consider their status even, especially given their clever win at Atletico Madrid.

Jose Mourinho is doing a fine job with Manchester United, but it’s really hard to praise the club too much for doing what’s expected in a glorified Europa League group. Clearly Sir Alex Ferguson was involved in the icing some of the draw balls again…

UCL wrap: Barcelona, PSG roll; Dzeko scores stunner (video)

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There were a few more zeroes on the board in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League action, but that doesn’t mean the day failed to entertain by any stretch of the imagination.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan, USSF prez? ]

Chelsea and Roma staged a slugfest at Stamford Bridge, while PSG and Barcelona saw its stars shining, and Jose Mourinho orchestrated another away defensive masterclass for Manchester United.

Chelsea 3-3 RomaRECAP

There’s a lot to say about this one. Chelsea goes up 2-0 through solid goals from David Luiz and Eden Hazard, but finds itself down and needs another Hazard goal to rescue a point.

But this goal, one of two from Edin Dzeko, is why we watch this wonderful sport. Aleksandar Kolarov also scored and had an assist as ex-Man City men came to play at Stamford Bridge.

Benfica 0-1 Manchester UnitedRECAP

The perfect road match, more or less, though United scored its lone goal thanks to goalkeeper error. Marcus Rashford took the free kick that was carried across the goal line, and United completed more than 500 passes to double Benfica’s output at the Estadio da Luz.

Barcelona 3-1 Olympiacos

It’s not much of a surprise to see Barca triumph at home over Greek opposition. An own goal joined Lucas Digne and this historic Lionel Messi marker to build a 3-0 lead at the Camp Nou.

Anderlecht 0-4 Paris Saint-Germain

In case you think PSG cannot make a run this year, consider its list of goal scorers on Wednesday: Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria, Neymar, and Edinson Cavani.

Elsewhere
Qarabag 0-0 Atletico Madrid
Juventus 2-1 Sporting Lisbon
CSKA Moscow 0-2 Basel
Bayern Munich 3-0 Celtic

Mourinho: Tactics involved targeting young Benfica backstop

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Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho knew that promising Benfica backstop Mile Svilar would be facing some big nerves.

The 18-year-old was making his UEFA Champions League debut, and Mourinho instructed his Red Devils to challenge the backstop at every turn.

[ RECAP: Benfica 0-1 Man Utd ]

That paid off when Svilar carried Marcus Rashford‘s free kick into the goal, the lone marker of a 1-0 loss that keeps United atop Group A and Benfica three points behind second- and third place.

“I knew how good the goalkeeper was, I told the players that. We had a little bit of a strategy, especially on set-pieces to make him uncomfortable. We put men around him on corners so he cannot come out. He risks a lot, but only top keepers do that. He was unlucky for the goal,” Mourinho said.

Svilar looked dejected after the game, apologizing to fans at the Estadio da Luz and getting consolation from a fellow Belgian in Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku.

Nemanja Matic laid out United’s strategy a bit more, from the BBC:

“The manager said to us to try and shoot and get some crosses towards their goalkeeper because he is young and playing in his first game. This is football and I know he is a great goalkeeper and I wish him well for the future.

“We had control, some difficulties in the first 30 minuets but then we controlled the pitch. We used our experience. We could not find the second goal but did not make any mistakes at the back.”

Rashford limped out of the game, and Mourinho says he initially thought it was cramps. Instead, it’s a problem with his left knee. Simon Peach of the Press Association quotes Mourinho as hoping the injury is not bad.

United completed more than 500 passes, doubling Benfica’s production. Some have been critical of Mourinho’s penchant to play it safe, and he winked at them after the match in calling his tactics “a crime.”

“We were in control, David De Gea did not have one save to make. I never felt we could concede a goal and were solid defensively. Sometime I feel being good defensively is a crime, but that is a way of getting results.”

Chelsea 3-3 Roma – Thrills at the Bridge

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  • Luiz, Hazard put Chelsea up 2-0
  • Kolarov, Dzeko brace flip lead
  • Hazard nabs equalizer
  • U.S. U-20 mid Scott on bench for Chelsea

Eden Hazard scored twice as Chelsea overcame the sacrifice of a 2-0 lead and the Blues drew AS Roma 3-3 at Stamford Bridge in UEFA Champions League action on Wednesday.

David Luiz also scored for Chelsea. Ex-Man City men Edin Dzeko and Aleksandar Kolarov starred for Roma, with Dzeko scoring twice and Kolarov adding a goal and an assist.

Chelsea has seven points to lead Group C, two more than Roma and five ahead of third-placed Atletico Madrid. The sides will meet again in Rome on Halloween.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan, USSF prez? ]

Luiz started the scoring with a delightful strike. Call it a second bite at the proverbial apple if you must, but then admit he sunk his teeth into it.

Eden Hazard made a darting run to double Chelsea’s lead, but Kolarov pulled Roma within one with a deflected strike past Thibaut Courtois.

Diego Perotti curled a shot that hardly troubled Courtois in the 63rd minute, the Chelsea keeper just leaving his feet collect it.

Dzeko and Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Then the former Man City striker struck again, seeing a long diagonal ball over his shoulder and whizzing a perfect left-footed volley through the flailing arms of Courtois.

Dzeko then made a late move before a Kolarov free kick to lose his mark and nod home a go-ahead goal.

It wasn’t over, as Hazard found his way to space and a cross from Pedro.

The Belgian headed his chance beyond a diving Alisson, and it was 3-3 with 15 minutes to play.

American-English midfielder Kyle Scott did not make his Chelsea bow. The 19-year-old has represented England at the U-16 level and the U.S. at the U-18 and U-20 levels.