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.)

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

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Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.