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.)

Heath, Smith sidelined with injuries for USWNT

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CHICAGO (AP) Forward Tobin Heath and defender Taylor Smith are sidelined with injuries that will keep them out of the U.S. women’s national team training camp in Louisiana ahead of two upcoming matches against South Korea.

Heath is nursing an ankle injury and Smith her shoulder. Both women were hurt in the NWSL championship match last Saturday, the U.S. Soccer Federation said Monday.

The Americans play Thursday at New Orleans and Sunday in Cary, North Carolina.

Neither player will be replaced on the roster and coach Jill Ellis will have 18 players dressed for each game.

Report: Sam Allardyce, Laurent Blanc want to be next USMNT boss

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Yep, this is true.

Sam Allardyce has thrown his hat into the ring with the U.S. national team searching for a new manager, and so has former Paris Saint-Germain and France boss Laurent Blanc.

[ MORE: Latest USMNT news ]

According to ESPN, sources close to Allardyce say he is up for the USMNT challenge which would “enable him to impose a long-term strategy and secure a legacy in a nation regarded as a growing force.”

A report from France Football states that Blanc is also interested in replacing Bruce Arena, who resigned last week following the USA’s shock defeat at Trinidad and Tobago which saw them miss the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Hmmm. After Jurgen Klinsmann’s time in charge of the USMNT, are the days of big name foreign managers over?

These are two relatively high-profile names with experience of managing national teams (in Allardyce’s case one game with England before The Telegraph sting scandal) but neither have experience of Major League Soccer or the unique challenges of CONCACAF.

Allardyce often talks fondly about his year spent with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL during his playing days and has used many techniques he picked up from the U.S. sporting realm in his lengthy coaching career which has spanned Premier League clubs Bolton, Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham United, Sunderland and Crystal Palace.

Yet the scandal which cut his ill-fated time in charge of England short will likely raise eyebrows if he is to be considered for the U.S. job and his direct style of play is not to the taste of many purists out there.

When it comes to Blanc, his ultra-defensive style of play may turn off those in charge of U.S. Soccer too but there’s no doubting his record with a title win at Bordeaux in 2009 before he took France to the last eight of EURO 2012, and then led PSG to three-straight French titles from 2012-13, is impressive.

The fact that these two managers have reportedly thrown their hats into the ring suggests just how highly the job is regarded worldwide, even if U.S. Soccer fans believe the program is currently at an all-time low after the embarrassment of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

In his conference call with reporters last week U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) president Sunil Gulati refused to rule out anybody for the USMNT job, stating that no specific profile (American, non-American coaches etc.) is preferred in their search for a new manager.

Many U.S. fans are hoping for a domestic manager to take charge with Peter Vermes, Ben Olsen and Jesse Marsch all mentioned with their vast knowledge of the U.S. national team and MLS setup.

Let’s wait and see what happens but after the Klinsmann era, one would suggest that USSF would be slightly hesitant to go overseas in their search for a new U.S. national team manager.

Champions League score predictions – Week 3

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We are entering the meaty part of the UEFA Champions League group stage with double headers coming up in the next two matchdays.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The five Premier League teams in the UCL are so far unbeaten with Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham all winning both of their opening two group games. Liverpool has two draw so far but Jurgen Klopp‘s men are still looking likely to make the knockout stage.

Below is a look at the 16 matches across the UCL on Tuesday and Wednesday as we make our score predictions for each game.

[ MORE: Champions League standings

Don’t be afraid to let us know your score picks in the comments section below.


Tuesday’s UCL games

Group E
Spartak Moscow 1-2 Sevilla
Maribor 1-3 Liverpool

Group F
Man City 2-0 Napoli
Feyenoord 1-3 Shakthar Donetsk

Group G
RB Leipzig 2-0 FC Porto
Monaco 2-1 Besiktas

Group H
APOEL 1-3 Borussia Dortmund
Real Madrid 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur

Wednesday’s UCL games

Group A
Benfica 1-2 Manchester United
CSKA Moscow 1-2 Basel

Group B
Anderlecht 1-4 Paris Saint-Germain
Bayern Munich 2-2 Celtic

Group C
Chelsea 1-1 Roma
Qarabag 1-3 Atletico Madrid

Group D
Barcelona 3-1 Olympiacos
Juventus 2-1 Sporting Lisbon

Leicester City fire manager Craig Shakespeare

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Leicester City have pulled the trigger much early than many expected.

Official confirmation arrived on Tuesday that Craig Shakespeare, who only took charge permanently of the Foxes over the summer, had been fired after just eight games of the 2017-18 Premier League season.

Claudio Ranieri‘s former assistant coach has been fired by the ruthless Leicester owners with the Foxes winning just one of their opening eight Premier League games of the season.

In an official statement on the club website, here’s what Leicester had to say as Michael Appleton has been placed in interim charge for their trip to Swansea this Saturday.

Leicester City Vice Chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha said: “Craig has been a great servant to Leicester City – during his spells as an Assistant Manager and since taking over as Manager in challenging circumstances in February. His dedication to the Club and to his work has been absolute and the contribution he made to the most successful period in Leicester City history is considerable.

“However, our early promise under Craig’s management has not been consistently evident in the months since and the Board feels that, regrettably, a change is necessary to keep the Club moving forward – consistent with the long-term expectations of our supporters, Board and owners.

“Craig is and will remain a very popular, respected figure at Leicester City and will be welcome back at King Power Stadium in future, both professionally and as a friend of the Club.”

The Foxes sat third from bottom and only on six points. The last three times Leicester have gained six points or less in their opening eight games of a PL season they have been relegated.

Stats like that would have surely alarmed their Thai owners.

The last time Leicester went six PL games without a win Ranieri was fired but this is still a shock considering  Shakespeare, 53, had been in charge for only four months.

Shakespeare was in interim charge at the end of last season after Ranieri was fired in February and led Leicester to seven wins from their final 13 games which saved the then reigning champs from relegation.

However, he never seemed like the long-term man to lead the shock 2015-16 PL champions back to the upper echelons of the Premier League and he is now on his way out of the King Power Stadium.