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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.)

Koeman: Manchester United “don’t deserve a medal” for treatment of Louis van Gaal

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20:  Louis van Gaal, Manager of  Manchester United talks to Ronald Koeman, Manager of Southampton during the  Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester United at St Mary's Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Southampton, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images
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When it comes to the firing of Louis Van Gaal, his countryman has his back.

Southampton boss Ronald Koeman doesn’t like the way Manchester United handled LVG’s fate with the team, firing him within hours of the Red Devils winning the FA Cup.

Like many, Koeman doesn’t buy that the LVG to Jose Mourinho transition happened in a week.

[ MORE: Early and (purposefully) absurd 2016-17 PL predictions ]

Given the gossip mill since Chelsea fired Mourinho in January, that’s not a hard thing to buy, and Koeman is angry that LVG was kept out of the loop. Reports claim that Van Gaal had drawn-up plans for 2016-17 with him on the day he was let go.

From Sky Sports:

“If Louis was not told about getting the sack until after the FA Cup final, then Manchester United as a club don’t deserve a medal for the way they treated him.

“If you know a little bit about the business at the highest level in football, then you know that these kind of deals are not done overnight.”

Koeman hedges his words with conditionals, but there’s little doubt what he means. Managers generally stand together when it comes to dismissals, but it’s nice to see someone stand up for LVG’s treatment (whether he deserved to be canned or not).

Early and absurd predictions for the 2016-17 Premier League season

LUTON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Geoff Cameron (R) of Stoke City celebrates scoring the winning penalty with Jonathan Walters after the penalty shoot-out during the Capital One Cup second round match between Luton Town and Stoke City at Kenilworth Road on August 25, 2015 in Luton, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images
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It’s Sunday morning, a time to reflect and enjoy some rest, coffee and “Meet the Press”, so why not let your imagination wander as I tell you exactly how the 2016 Premier League season will play out?

Anyone will tell you that the world of football is a copycat affair, one where the latest big thing — counter attacking, the 4-5-1, false nines — often runs wild.

So if the next year of club football goes similar to the latest campaign, from remarkable fairy tale runs to powers dropping off and the UCL not going according to early season forecasts, how will it all look?

[ USMNT-BOLIVIA: Recap3 things |Player ratings ]

Deep breath and…

Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool are incredibly busy in the summer transfer window, and City wins a massive bidding war to scoop up Paulo Dybala for a cool $120 million. Chelsea nabs Breel Embolo, United gets Romelu Lukaku, and Liverpool signs Christian Pulisic. But it’s not just the youngsters, as no one wants to miss “the next Jamie Vardy“. Well, almost no one. Nineteen teams sign a non-league striker. Arsenal does not, as Arsene Wenger decries reactionary big money signings with the Gunners sitting in first at the close of August as one of two unbeaten sides. He buys four midfielders and a backup goalkeeper “just in case”.

Tottenham Hotspur begin the season well and are the darlings of Europe by mid-January after escaping a group of death with Real Madrid, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk. However, a late April draw makes it impossible for them to catch the Premier League’s top side, and Mauricio Pochettino focuses on the UEFA Champions League. Spurs shock Atletico Madrid in the UCL final, qualifying for the 2017-18 tournament despite losing their last five PL games and finishing fifth, behind Arsenal on goal differential but depriving the fourth-place Gunners of the UCL. Wenger says his club was “unlucky” because some guys got hurt.

Reigning champions Leicester City start with some stumbles, and Claudio Ranieri goes from lovable leader to “over his head” manager despite Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N'Golo Kante being joined at the King Power Stadium by Sandro Ramirez. Ranieri is ungratefully canned in December for being too nice to the team doctors and shaking too many hands at press conference. Still, the Foxes make a run to the UCL quarters where they fall to PSG, finishing eighth in the PL.

Mendy (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Southampton, Swansea City and West Ham United tempt their supporters with strong campaigns but can’t crack the Top Four, which isn’t a problem for Stoke City. That’s because led by CONCACAF defender Geoff Cameron, Ligue 1 relative unknown Nampalys Mendy, Algerian playmaker Ryad Boudebouz and National League striker Elliott Buchanan (formerly of Bishop’s Stortford, as we all know), the Potters rise to the top of the Premier League. They lose to Arsenal twice, but win every other game with a remarkable counter attacking style as “new” manager Marco Hugheso endears himself to the world with his odd habit of banging a gong and saying “silly sing, silly song”.

A movie is cast, with Ranieri playing Hughes, and Kante, Mahrez, Wes Morgan and Vardy being asked to star. Three accept, but Vardy says, “This film idea is derivative and fails to live up to the lofty example set by my personal idol, Roberto Benigni. Ciao Bella, Get Benigni.”

Somehow it’s shocking to see Chelsea finish 12th despite last year’s struggles, as Diego Costa and Eden Hazard show true character in purposely scoring into their own net during a December match against Manchester United, two days after swearing a blood oath that they are doing their best for manager Antonio Conte, who is soon fired with Chelsea in 20th.

Liverpool looked set to make a title charge, but is left scratching their heads when Jurgen Klopp celebrates a Merseyside Derby goal from Christian “Still Here, Guys” Benteke by jumping so aggressively that his momentum carries him into outer space, where he takes the helm of Moonventus, leading the Old Lunar Lady to its 23rd Milky Way Premiership title. The club can’t regroup under new manager Steven Gerrard.

[ UCL: Real wins, Ronaldo with clinching PK | CR7 reacts | Bale, too ]

Frank de Boer takes over at Everton, but the hire goes awry before a late-season manager change happens too late for the Toffees to survive an inexplicable drop to the Championship. Caretaker boss Louis Van Gaal decides to stick around for a season in the second tier in an almost unprecedented move. Sunderland fires Sam Allardyce after a woeful start, and Rolland Courbois can’t save the day as two more PL mainstays are relegated along with Middlesbrough. That means two Northeast sides go down, while one comes up.

West Brom and Crystal Palace finish 14th and 15th. Tony Pulis hails it as a remarkable success for his Baggies, who sometimes take naps on the pitch during the final five matches. As for Palace, Alan Pardew wears leisure suits to every game and claims Palace are “dancing on the edge of the Top Four, just really unlucky when you consider well-regarded I am.”

Ah, but what about Manchester United and Manchester City? It’s a dogfight between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, and by the end of the season Mourinho refuses to answer questions with anything other than facial expressions and quotes from “Ocean’s Eleven”. City finishes second to United thanks to goal differential, as Mourinho oddly benefits from Chelsea malcontents Costa and Hazard scoring all those own goals in December.

Steve Bruce leads Hull City to an 11th place finish in the Premier League, wearing a tuxedo to every game because “Life’s a big wedding party”. Bournemouth buys Neymar, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Thiago Silva, but all are injured for six months and Eddie Howe still leads the side to safety. Watford is mired in the relegation fight for the first half of the season, but swaps sides with also relegation-threatened Malaga and both sides survive as the Hornets bring back Quique Sanchez Flores for the final four months. Burnley actually finishes in 18th, but is allowed to finish 17th because manager Sean Dyche “scares the ever loving heck” out of everyone.

Premier League 2016-17 table

  1. Stoke City
  2. Manchester United
  3. Manchester City
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham Hotspur
  6. Liverpool
  7. West Ham United
  8. Leicester City
  9. Southampton
  10. Swansea City
  11. Hull City
  12. Chelsea
  13. Bournemouth
  14. West Bromwich Albion
  15. Crystal Palace
  16. Watford
  17. Burnley
  18. Everton
  19. Middlesbrough
  20. Sunderland

Premier League Team of the Season

Butland

Yedlin — Cameron — Otamendi — Shaw

Ozil — Boudebouz — Mendy

Pulisic — Buchanan — Embolo

“Nobody remembers the losers” — Simeone admits he’ll consider his future at Atleti

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  Head coach Diego Simeone of Atletico Madrid gestures during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Diego Simeone is an emotional man, and big days are no exception to the rule.

The Atletico Madrid boss is a man who, according to legend, grabbed the mic at his wedding and apologized to his bride for Argentina falling short at the 1994 World Cup, then began crying.

So perhaps we should measure our reaction to his comments after Atletico Madrid lost a combination Madrid Derby-Champions League final for the second time in three years, but his words do matter.

[ UCL: Real wins, Ronaldo with clinching PK | CR7 reacts | Bale, too ]

The much-desired manager would be the hottest commodity on the market should he leave Atletico following a loss to Real in penalty kicks, and Simeone admitted he’ll think about resigning his post.

From the BBC:

“I am thinking that I have to start thinking. It’s a logical question for you to ask after a defeat like the one we’ve suffered today.

“We had the chance to become champions, we didn’t take that chance. We need to continue working, I have to think things out on my part – that’s what I’m doing now.

“What is clear to me is that nobody remembers the losers. We have to get over this and heal our wounds.”

With so much turnover in the Premier League already this season and few jobs open, where would Simeone go? He’s a football junkie, not someone we’d expect to “take a year off”, and his passion for Atleti still makes it feel unlikely he’d leave the club at all.

That said, he’s conducted some monumental reorganizations around the Vicente Calderon, and the energy it takes to do such a thing may have him considering whether he should try his luck at another locale (especially if Antoine Griezmann and other big stars find new homes).

MLS roundup: Drogba the hero; Multiple Kamaras score (but not the one you expect)

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba celebrates his goal against the Colorado Rapids during first half of an MLS soccer game, Saturday, April 30, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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Major League Soccer had plenty of entertainment in store for those who focused on it Saturday despite the USMNT, UEFA Champions League and English promotion playoff final dotting the landscape of football.

[ USMNT: Match recapThree things | Player ratings ]

A league superstar scored a hat trick, but so did a new face. Two surging and surprising clubs drew in Colorado, and two stumbling powers went head-to-head in New England.

Montreal 3-2 L.A. Galaxy

The big names came out to play in Quebec, as Didier Drogba, Giovani dos Santos, Ignacio Piatti and Steven Gerrard all played part in a thriller. Drogba was the key, setting up a goal before scoring at the very end of stoppage time to lift the Impact past the Galaxy. Then again, you could make a pretty valid argument that L.A. goalkeeper Brian Rowe was the key, because… dude:

http://player.ooyala.com/iframe.js#pbid=4bfc225f82bf46c48dfb065eda97f74f&ec=VjYXhzMzE6D3Br5qxiMUbv_R1DcsHlHo&platform=html5-priority

New England 2-1 Seattle

The Sounders have seen a lot of penalty calls against them this year, but this one will make fans think there’s a conspiracy against them. With a 1-0 lead, a Seattle clearance pegged Erik Friberg in the gut, catching him in a clear act of ball playing hand. Lee Nguyen converted the penalty, and Femi Hollinger-Janzen scored late to give the Revs a much-needed win and sink Seattle further down the “Why?!?” rabbit hole.

Colorado 1-1 Philadelphia

There wasn’t much brewing until late between the two conference leaders, who kept hold of their No. 1 seeds after Sam Cronin and Brian Carroll traded goals in the final five minutes of play in Colorado.

New York Red Bulls 3-0 Toronto FC

Bradley Wright-Phillips scored the fastest hat trick to start a match in Major League Soccer history, while the reigning MVP had to leave the game with a non-contact injury. Gonzalo Veron saw red for RBNY, but it did not help TFC get back in the game. To make things worse for TFC, Will Johnson made a PK only to miss when forced to retake for encroachment.

Columbus 4-3 Real Salt Lake

Hola, Ola. Ola Kamara scored a hat trick around a Justen Glad own goal as the hosts scored four uninterrupted goals as the Crew and RSL played a pair of busy halves in Ohio. Joao Plata had a goal and an assist for the visitors, while Jordan Allen and Luke Mulholland also got on the board.

Elsewhere
Vancouver 1-1 Houston — RECAP
Chicago 1-1 Portland
Sporting KC 0-1 DC United —
RECAP
San Jose 0-0 FC Dallas