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Preview: 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Group A

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Group A, the only quartet without a traditional continental power, kicks off play at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations on Saturday in South Africa. Whereas Ghana, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire take headlining slots in the competition’s other groups, a struggling host nation gets the preferred spot in the tournament’s first group. As a result, we’re left with a quartet where the highest ranked team has no history, the group’s former champions may be its weakest teams, and the team that has reason to think it can do some damage is could still tumble out after three games.

Welcome to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Over the next three days, we’ll be giving you snapshots of the four, four-team groups. Today, we begin with Group A, a packet that starts the tournament at 11 a.m. Eastern on Saturday.

GROUP A: South Africa, Angola, Morocco, Cape Verde

SOUTH AFRICA

World rank: 85; CAF rank: 22; Best finish: 1996 Champions

Many will remember the Bafana Bafana from their role as hosts for the 2010 World Cup. There, they became the first hosts to fail to advance out of their group. Things didn’t improve competitively after the finals, with the team failing to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations in Gabon-Equatorial Guinea.

South Africa were absolved from a potential repeat embarrassment when, in response to domestic unrest in Libya, hosting duties were switched to the continent’s southern tip. Now it’s a matter of taking advantage of that fortune.

History: South Africa was banned from participation for political reasons until 1994, when they failed to qualify. As hosts in 1996, they won the competition in their first appearance and went on to qualify for seven successive finals (finishing second in 1998, third in 2000). They’ve missed the last two tournaments.

Players: South Africa’s biggest star is Everton winger Steven Pienaar, but with the 30-year-old three months into an international retirement, the hosts are left with a team with few recognizable names. Some will remember midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala, the team’s most capped player (78), for his goal to open the 2010 World Cup, but with the possible exceptions of former Fulham midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi (now with second-division Crystal Palace), forward Bernard Parker (who spent a short time with FC Twente), and defender Bongani Khumalo (who spent one season bouncing around England), only South African league experts will be familiar with this roster.

How they’ll play: Head coach Gordon Igesund has played both one and two-striker formations in pre-tournament friendlies, each featuring 28-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns striker Katlego Mphela as the main threat. His 23 international goals (in 49 games) are almost twice as many as the next most-prolific player on the roster (Parker, 12).

Expect athletic but direct play that will rely on opportunism more than creativity.

Outlook: As hosts, they should expect to get out of this group, but a knockout round spot is not a given. If this tournament was being played anywhere else, the Bafana Bafana would be unlikely to come out of this group.

ANGOLA

World rank: 78; CAF rank: 19; Best finish: Two quarterfinal appearances

Despite only qualifying for one World Cup (2006), Angola is making their fifth straight appearance in their continent’s championship. In 2012, only the goal difference tiebreaker kept the Antelopes from making their third straight quarterfinal appearance. That setback hasn’t kept the Angolans from setting ambitious goals for this tournament. Uruguayan coach Gustavo Ferrin, having guided his team to South Africa on a seven-match unbeaten run, is starting a top three finish.

History: Angola didn’t qualify for the finals until 1996 but have since back seven of 10 tournaments. They’ve never advanced beyond the round of eight.

Players: Most of Ferrin’s squad plays in the Angolan domestic league. Former Manchester United prospect Manucho Goncalves (Real Valladolid) is the most notable exception, his size and athleticism making him one of the more difficult marks in the tournament. Mateus (Nacional, Portugal) has been a regular in the team since their run to the knockout round at Germany 2006, Djalma (Kasımpaşa, Turkey) will provide the creative spark, while veteran Gilberto (AEL Limassol, Cyprus) will serve as the midfield linchpin.

It’s an experienced group that has seen relative success in this competition. You can see why Ferrin wants them to be ambitious.

How they’ll play: In the past, Angola’s usually featured Goncalves as the focal point of a two-attacker setup, with the team’s four-man midfield featuring a creator and destroyer. The team Ferrin’s selected hints he’ll set up the same way; however, this will be the 53-year-old’s first major senior competition. It remains to be seen how he’ll manage it.

The Antelopes don’t play the most intense brand of soccer, but the technical quality is there. And they’re capable of getting out on the counter.

Outlook: Angola has the talent and pedigree to get out of this group, but drawn with the host nation, their path to the final eight is not without pitfalls. There are no easy games in this packet, and while the Angolans should be favored to advance, a second straight near miss wouldn’t be a shock.

source: Getty ImagesMOROCCO

World rank:  74; CAF rank: 17; Best finish: 1976 Champions

The 2015 hosts are appearing in their eighth finals in nine tournaments, yet the northwest African nation’s results have been mostly disappointing. While they lost to the hosts in the final of Tunisia 2004, the Lions of the Atlas have only moved out of group one other time since 1998. This year, head coach Rachid Taoussi is without most of the countries most prominent stars, with Marouane Chamakh (West Ham), Adel Tarrabt (Queens Park Rangers), and Houssine Kharja (Qatar’s Al-Araby) not in the team that travelled to South Africa. Despite the upheaval, Taoussi predicts the Lions and South Africa will advance from the group.

History: In addition to their 1976 title, Morocco has finished second (2004) and third (1980). Add in their fourth place finishes in 1996 and 1998 and the Lions have made the final four five times. It’s the most accomplished history in the group.

Players: Chamakh, Tarrabt, Kharja and excluded Anzhi Makhachkala midfielder Mbark Boussoufa have combined for 186 caps and 38 goals. The 23-man team Taoussi’s taking to South Africa count a total of 208 appearances and 12 goals.

This isn’t merely a matter of taking a young team. Only six players in Taoussi’s 23-man squad are under 24 years of age.

The most important of them is 22-year-old Montpellier midfielder Younès Belhanda (right). A key figure in MHSC’s 2011-12 Ligue 1 title run, Belhanda is among the most talented players in this tournament. Morocco will need a lot of luck to advance if Belhanda doesn’t perform like this group’s best player.

How they’ll play: In their latest pre-tournament friendly against Namibia, Taossi started Fiorentina’s Mounir El Hamdaoui as a striker flanked in attack by Galatasaray’s Nordin Amrabat, and Liverpool’s Oussama Assaidi; however, it remains to be seen how the team sets up when Balhanda returns from injury. In all likelihood, Belhanda will have to do some heavy lifting to power the attack in front of sitters Karim El Ahmadi (Aston Villa) and Adil Hermach (Al-Hilal).

Outlook: Taoussi’s over confident. This team’s unlikely to break Morocco’s recent trend of disappointment.

CAPE VERDE

World rank: 70; CAF rank: 15; Best finish: Never previously qualified

In the always unpredictable world of African soccer, Cape Verde’s qualification was the most difficult to foresee. This year’s only finals debutants, the Blue Sharks qualified at the expense of Cameroon, a four-time champion that was trying to avoid the indignity of missing a second straight Cup. With their 3-2 aggregate win in the final playoff round, the island nation of around 500,000 people qualified for South Africa, leaving the Indomitable Lions at home.

Players: Defender Nando is the team captain and most experienced player (38 appearances) on a young and Verdean team that have had little time together. The more intriguing attacker is 23-year-old Lille forward Ryan Mendes, who has scored three goals in nine international appearances. Olhanesne’s 21-year-old attacker Djaniny had a goal against Cameroon, one of two he’s scored in four international appearances.

How they’ll play: In their latest friendly, coach Lúcio Antunes started with one up top against Nigeria, though with players like Mendes and Djaniny starting on the bench, it’s unclear that’s how Antunes plans to play come Saturday’s opener against South Africa. As with most things Cape Verde soccer, how they’ll approach their first major tournament is an unknown.

Outlook: Having quickly acquired a reputation for a well-organized in defense, Cape Verde shouldn’t be an easy match for any team. However, they get some bad luck having to face the host nation in their Cup of Nations debut. While many expect the Sharks to give South Africa a difficult time on Saturday, it is their first major tournament match, and they’ll be on the road.

Had that match come later in the tournament, the Verdeans may be better prepared (having shaken off their first tournament jitters). In game one, they may miss out on valuable points they’d need to advance.

SCHEDULE

Saturday, Jan. 19, 11 a.m. ET – South Africa vs. Cape Verde
Saturday, Jan. 19, 2 p.m. ET – Angola vs. Morocco
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 10 a.m. ET – South Africa vs. Angola
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 1 p.m. ET – Morocco vs. Cape Verde
Sunday, Jan. 27, 12 p.m. ET – Morocco vs. South Africa
Sunday, Jan. 27, 12 p.m. ET – Cape Verde vs. Angola

Wild guess order of finish:

1. South Africa (7 pts.)
2. Angola (5 pts.)
3. Cape Verde (4 pts.)
4. Morocco (0 pts.)

Three things we learned from Chelsea vs. Tottenham

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LONDON — Tottenham Hotspur drew 2-2 with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Monday as their hopes of winning the Premier League title were ended.

Leicester City have won the 2015-16 Premier League title.

[ VIDEO: Leicester fans react to title ]

Spurs looked to be on the brink of their first league win at Chelsea since 1990 as they scored twice just before half time through Harry Kane and Son Heung-min and were cruising.

There were multiple flashpoints in a feisty London derby and Mauricio Pochettino‘s men couldn’t hold on with Gary Cahill pulling on back and Eden Hazard smashing in an unstoppable strike late on to send the home fans wild.

Here’s what we learned from a wild night at Stamford Bridge.


SPURS CAN’T KEEP TITLE HOPES ALIVE

Tottenham did not give up without a fight but they threw away a chance to keep the title fight going until the penultimate weekend of the season.

Pochettino’s side started slowly but after Son and Danny Rose went close, they grew in stature and then the goals arrived. In the 35th minute Kane was played in by a wonderfully simplistic pass from Erik Lamela and Kane showed supreme composure to round Asmir Begovic and tap home. One minute before half time it got better as Christian Eriksen teed up Son to smash home. 2-0. Spurs’ fans were in dreamland.

Even at the start of the second half they pushed hard with Kane getting free on the left and having his curled effort saved. He then flashed a cross across goal which evaded his teammates and Spurs were on top. Chelsea pulled a goal back through Gary Cahill just before the hour mark to liven up a spicy encounter further and then Chelsea pinned Spurs back for the remainder of the game. Willian‘s cross just evaded Diego Costa at the back post as Kyle Walker cleared and then Hazard delivered the killer blow.

Spurs have had a sensational season but they crumbled at Chelsea and have now not won at Stamford Bridge for 27 years. Losing the battle in this manner was the most upsetting for Spurs and their fans.

PASSION BOILS OVER; DEMBELE IN TROUBLE

Right on half time, with Spurs leading 2-0, Danny Rose clattered into Willian in front of the benches. All hell broke loose. Pochettino raced onto the pitch to try and break up the scuffle, players from both teams bundled in and the coaches got involved. It was utter pandemonium as the thrusting passion of a truly vitriolic London derby was in full flow. Amid all that madness a moment of sheer lunacy arose.

Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele had already been at it with John Obi Mikel earlier in the game and, of course, Costa had been going at it with Jan Vertonghen and just about anybody else who wanted a piece. So, Dembele and Costa came together, squared up among the crowd and then the Belgian gouged Costa’s left eyeball with his right finger. Just what was he thinking? Referee Mark Clattenberg missed it but one of his linesman was looking straight at the incident, I mean straight at it, and didn’t tell the referee to act. Dembele will likely be getting a call from the English Football Association this week and can expect a ban for the rest of the season. There is no place for this kind of  behavior. What to follow was almost worse.

There were so many contentious incidents during this game and Clattenberg tried to be lenient and let tackles go to start with, but in the end he dished out 12 yellow cards. Eric Dier flew into tackles against Hazard and Fabregas and how he stayed on the pitch we will never know. At the end of the game it all kicked off again. Coaches, players and officials were involved in a huge brawl at the headed down the tunnel. Severe FA punishment for both clubs, mostly Tottenham, will follow.

Spurs threw away their chance to win the title and they reacted in the worse possible way. It was shambolic the way they ended the game. If it passion, pride and commitement you’re after, look no further than this London derby. It was a belter but is likely to see repercussions, especially for Dembele and probably many others.

HAZARD WINS THE TITLE, AGAIN

Almost 12 months ago Eden Hazard to win Chelsea the Premier League title. On Monday he scored to win Leicester City the Premier League.

Hazard came on at half time with Chelsea 2-0 down and helped changed the game. His incisive running scared Spurs’ defense every time he got on the ball and his sublime curling finish in the 83rd minute made it 2-2 and hammered the final nail in the coffin of Spurs’ title hopes. He hasn’t had the best season, far from it, but he gave the Chelsea fans what they wanted on Monday. To  end Tottenham’s title hopes. See the video above to watch it play out. The home fans were desperate to beat or draw with Spurs and were cheering “Leicester, Champions!” in the final moments and one fan held up a sign for their former manager, and current Leicester boss, Claudio Ranieri: “Do it for Ranieri!”

They did. Fans in Leicester rejoiced as Hazard celebrated in front of Tottenham’s fans following his goal. Last week he spoke of how Chelsea did not want Tottenham to win the league and do whatever they could to stop it happening. Turns out he did it himself. Hazard won the PL for a team for the second-straight season.

WATCH: Leicester players, fans react to winning the Premier League title

LEICESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 02:  Leicester City fans celebrate Chelsea's second goal as they watch the Barclays Premier League between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Yates's Bar on May 2, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom. If Spurs fail to win against Chelsea, Leicester City will become Premier League champions.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
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Leicester City have won the 2015-16 Barclays Premier League.

With two matches to spare, the Foxes have clinched their first-ever top-flight title in the club’s 132-year history, finishing off the most improbable run in sports history.

While Leicester didn’t get to celebrate the title on the pitch, that didn’t stop the players and fans from celebrating around the city.

 

Leicester City crowned 2015-16 Premier League champions

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Leicester City have won the 2015-16 Premier League title.

I’ll repeat it again: Leicester City have won the 2015-16 Premier League.

One of the greatest fairytales in sporting history is complete.

[ VIDEO: Leicester react to winning PL ]

With nearest rivals Tottenham Hotspur drawing 2-2 at Chelsea on Monday, the Foxes become just the sixth team in history to win the Premier League as they won their first-ever top-flight title in their 132-year history.

They have an seven-point lead at the top of the table and Tottenham have just two games remaining, meaning Leicester cannot be caught and won the title while watching the game on TV from the comfort of their own home.

[ MORE: Full Leicester City archive

In a season which has defied belief, Leicester has shrugged off the challenge of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester City to become the most unlikely champion in PL history and probably English soccer history.

Italian manager Claudio Ranieri has masterminded the success in his first season in charge at the King Power Stadium with the veteran boss moved to tears at the final whistle. He took over last summer after Leicester City survived relegation in the final weeks of last season under Nigel Pearson. They were only promoted back to the PL for the 2014-15 season and have kept a large number of the players who led them from the third tier in 2009.

[ MORE: The perfect storm which Leicester took advantage of

Now, they’ve gone from 5000-1 outsiders and among the favorites for relegation to PL champions. This is one of the most remarkable stories in sporting history. Period. Maybe even the most remarkable.

Their journey has inspired every other team around the globe and with Jamie Vardy‘s goals, Riyad Mahrez‘s magic, N'Golo Kante‘s running and a defiant defensive unit led by captain Wes Morgan, the Foxes have ridden an incredible wave of euphoria in recent months to get over the line.

[ MORE: Detailing the day Leicester (pretty much) won the PL ]

In truth, every single Leicester player must be lauded and they will go down in history, their names never forgotten in Leicester and further afield.

With streets set to be named after them, calls for Raineri to be knighted and a first-ever appearance in the UEFA Champions League coming up next season, the Foxes have become the biggest sporting story on the planet.

I’ll say it again one more time just in case you don’t believe me: Leicester City are the 2015-16 Premier League champions.

Never in my life did I think I’d be typing those words.

Chelsea 2-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Hazard’s late goal hands Leicester City the title

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 02:   Toby Alderweireld of Tottenham Hotspur and Diego Costa of Chelsea battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge on May 02, 2016 in London, England.jd  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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  • Kane, Son score for Tottenham
  • Hazard equalizes in the 83rd minute
  • Leicester City are Premier League champions

Leicester City are officially your Barclays Premier League champions for the 2015-16 season.

In need of a win to keep their title hopes alive, Tottenham squandered a 2-0 halftime lead at Stamford Bridge, settling for a 2-2 draw with Chelsea to hand Leicester the trophy.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

After an even opening to the match, Tottenham scored two late goals before the break to take a commanding lead into the dressing room.

Harry Kane opened the scoring in the 35th minute, capping off a fluid run of play from the visitors. Erik Lamela collected from Christian Eriksen before slotting Kane in with a perfectly-timed through-ball. Kane’s first touch took him around the goalkeeper, leaving him an open net for his league-leading 25th goal of the season.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Less than ten minutes later, Son Heung-min made it 2-0 Tottenham. A turnover from Branislav Ivanovic led to a quick break from Spurs, with Son finishing off just his third Premier League goal of the season.

The first half ended with a touchline melee that saw both benches clear as tempers boiled over. A challenge from Danny Rose on Willian led to a shoving match between the players, with Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino jumping onto the pitch to separate the two. Pochettino’s presence led to a huge gathering that took a few minutes for referee Mark Clattenburg to quiet down. In the midst of it all, video review showed Mousa Demebele appearing to scratch the face of Diego Costa, which could bring on further punishment from the FA.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Two goals down, Chelsea came out of the break on the front foot, and the Blues pulled a goal back in the 58th minute. Gary Cahill got free of his mark on a corner kick, finding enough room to take a touch and fire a left-footed volley past Hugo Lloris to cut Spurs’ lead to one.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Chelsea looked the better side throughout the second half, with Hiddink’s men determined to end Tottenham’s title hopes. Then, in the 83rd minute, Eden Hazard found an equalizer to give Chelsea a share of the points and Leicester the Premier League title. After scoring his first two league goals of the season last weekend, Hazard’s third was his prettiest, bending a beautiful shot into the top corner to the delight of Leicester fans everywhere.

Tempers flared before the final whistle, but when that whistle blew at Stamford Bridge, Leicester City were crowned Premier League champions.