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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.)

Southampton 1-1 Sunderland: Defoe, Rodriguez score late in draw

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Jay Rodriguez of Southampton shoots during the Premier League match between Southampton and Sunderland at St Mary's Stadium on August 27, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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  • Rodriguez nets late equalizer
  • Defoe opened scoring from PK spot
  • Sunderland picks up first point of 2016

Jermain Defoe looked to give Sunderland three points on Saturday, but it was Jay Rodriguez who provided Southampton with a late equalizer at St. Mary’s in their 1-1 draw.

Defoe converted from the penalty spot with 10 minutes to play in regulation after Jose Fonte took down the Englishman inside the area a minute before.

The home side didn’t quit though with five minutes remaining, when Rodriguez smashed home the equalizer following a pass from James Ward-Prowse.

With the result, Sunderland picks up its first point of the new season, while Southampton sits directly above the Black Cats on the table with two points of their own.

Everton 1-0 Stoke: Toffees remain unbeaten

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Shay Given of Stoke City reacts after failing to save a penalty during the Premier League match between Everton and Stoke City at Goodison Park on August 27, 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images)
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  • Given own goal the difference
  • Williams, Mirallas, Bolasie go close
  • Just one goal this season for Stoke
  • Everton unbeaten, 7 points from possible 9

Everton continued their solid start to the new Premier League season as Ronald Koeman‘s side edged out Stoke City in stormy conditions at Goodison Park.

The Toffees won the game thanks to Leighton Baines‘ second half penalty kick which rebounded off Shay Given, onto the post and then back off his head and in. Despite the comedic nature of the game-winner, Everton were the more dangerous side throughout and deserved to win by more.

With the win Koeman’s side now have seven points from their opening three games, while Stoke has just one point on the board.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It was all Everton in the first half as Kevin Mirallas forced Given into a smart stop down low and Ashley Williams almost grabbed his first goal for the club as he headed Mirallas’ cross towards the far corner of the net but Peter Crouch brilliantly hooked it off the line.

Everton then had a great chance as Ross Barkley drove towards the box and set up Mirallas. His powerful shot forced Given into a fine stop as the veteran goalkeeper tipped the ball over the bar.

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Barkley then went close as Mason Holgate whipped in a great cross from the right which Barkley slid in for but just missed.

Everton eventually went 1-0 up in the second half as Phil Bardsley was adjudged to have pushed Williams in the box and Baines’ spot kick was not well struck and was saved by Given in the wet conditions. However the ball then struck the post and hit Given on the head before going in. 1-0 to the Toffees in comedic fashion.

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Soon after they went behind a rare chance arrived for Stoke as Marko Arnautovic had a shot pushed onto the bar by Maarten Stekelenburg but Everton kept pushing hard for a second with Yannick Bolasie forcing Given into a save and the Stoke goalkeeper also denied Barkley.

Stoke went close as Arnautovic’s cutback couldn’t find Jonathan Walters and then Bolasie curled another effort just wide.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

Everton comfortably held on for the win as Koeman has two wins and is unbeaten in his first three games in charge.

Leicester 2-1 Swansea: Foxes back in business

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City celebrates scoring his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Swansea City at The King Power Stadium on August 27, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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  • Vardy nets first of the season
  • Leicester secure first win
  • 2 defeats in 3 for Swansea 
  • Mahrez misses PK

Reigning champs Leicester City beat Swansea City in torrential rain at the King Power Stadium on Saturday as Claudio Ranieri‘s side survived a late scare.

Jamie Vardy put Leicester ahead in trademark fashion and Wes Morgan made it 2-0. Leroy Fer‘s header made things interesting but Swansea couldn’t find an equalizer late on.

With the win Leicester has four points on the season, will Swansea has three points after two-straight defeats.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Riyad Mahrez whipped a free kick just over from a promising position and it was then down to Leicester’s other star to put them ahead.

Leicester took the lead through a classic counter attack as Danny Drinkwater‘s perfect long ball found Vardy who finished emphatically to grab his first goal of the season, and his 50th in the league for Leicester, to put the Foxes 1-0 up.

[ MORE: Premier League standings ]

With thunder and lightning in the skies over the King Power Stadium, Swansea responded well to falling behind as Gylfi Sigurdsson curled an effort just over from 25-yards out.

The game was effectively early in the second as Morgan knocked him after a corner fell to the Leicester captain inside the box and he hooked home. 2-0.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]  

Leicester then had a great chance to go 3-0 up after Shinji Okazaki was fouled in the box but Mahrez’s penalty kick was saved by Lukasz Fabianski as he tipped it onto the post and then saved Okazaki’s shot with the rebound.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

A worrying moment then arrived for the Foxes as goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was forced off after making a brave save. That meant a debut for Ron-Robert Zieler.

One of his first acts was to pick the ball out of the net as Fer headed home to make it 2-1. Game on.

Despite being ahead Leicester continue to pour forward and search for a third goal but left gaps at the back which Swansea couldn’t exploit. The Foxes were relieved to bag their first win of the new season.

Crystal Palace 1-1 Bournemouth: Dann rescues late point for Palace

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Lewis Grabban of AFC Bournemouth takes the ball away from Christian Benteke of Crystal Palace during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and AFC Bournemouth at Selhurst Park on August 27, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
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  • Dann pulls out result for Palace
  • King gives Cherries early advantage
  • Boruc makes fantastic PK stop

They had more of the chances on the afternoon, but it took over 90 minutes for Crystal Palace to rescue a point at home against Bournemouth. Scott Dann‘s 93rd minute equalizer gave the home side a 1-1 draw after limiting their opponent to just three shots on target.

Bournemouth struck in the 11th minute when Josh King smashed his close-range effort inside the far post.

Just five minutes later, Palace had a perfect chance to equalize from the penalty spot but Yohan Cabaye‘s effort was saved in spectacular fashion by goalkeeper Artur Boruc.

With neither side taking control of the match in the second half, Palace battled its way back into the game to find their opening goal on the day in stoppage time.