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Preview: Africa Cup of Nations, Group B

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For the second tournament in a row, Ghana and Mali have been drawn together, the two west African nations finishing in that order at Equatorial Guinea-Gabon 2012. And for the second tournament in a row, the two nations are favored to get out of what appears to be a top-heavy group, one that may be even more uneven than last year’s. Whereas 2012’s group had a decent Guinea side as the quartet’s third wheel, this year’s packet is rounded out by a team that’s never won a Cup game and another that’s making their first appearance since 2004.

But given the way the games line up, one of this packet’s big two could face a make-or-break match on the group’s final day. In that way, a group which looks like one of the tournament’s easiest to pick could send one of CAN’s higher rated sides home after eight days.

GROUP B: Ghana, Mali, Niger, Congo DR

MORE: Previewing Group A (which kicks off Saturday)

GHANA

World rank: 26; CAF rank: 4; Best finish: Champions in 1963, `65, `78, `82.

Along with Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana was one of the co-favorites heading into 2012 yet failed to make the final, their attack again failing them. After a run to the 2010 final that never saw the Black Stars score more than once in a game, Ghana managed only six goals in as many matches in 2012. With only one player in the squad possessing more than five international goals, it’s unclear why this year will be any different.

History: Despite being Africa’s most competitive team at the last two World Cups, Ghana has turned into a relatively passive giant. The Black Stars have no problem making it through qualifying cycles, but at the Cup of Nations, they’ve become a nearly team.

After failing to qualify for the 2004 tournament, Ghana’s made the semifinals of three of the last four tournaments. Yet they’ve only advanced to one final, and they’ve failed to win the competition since 1982. Despite entering each tournament as one of the favorites, the Black Stars haven’t broken through in a generation.

Players: Captain Asamoah Gyan (Al-Ain) is one main (only?) goal scoring threat. While coach James Kwesi Appiah as a wealth of talented midfielders at his disposal, none of Kwadwo Asamoah (Juventus, pictured), Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Udinese), Derek Boateng (Dnipro) or Anthony Annan (Osasuna) offer the attacking prospects of the retired Kevin Prince Boateng and Michael Essien (who, in fairness, hasn’t been a part of the team for three years). Ghana will need goals from young talents like Christian Atsu (Porto), Richmond Boakye (Sassuolo), and Wakaso Mubarak (Espnayol).

The squad would look a lot different had Marseille’s André Ayew (or his younger brother Jordan) been included, but after “Dede” was late reporting to the team, Appiah elected to leave him out of the squad. The result is a team that will likely have to grind out results, though in two pre-tournament friendlies (against Egypt and Tunisia), the Black Stars did manage seven goals.

How they’ll play: The mentality will be more important than the formation. In friendlies, Ghana’s played a three-attacker formation that looks to feature two of the young prospects flanking Gyan; however, against Egypt the team was still reportedly passive after an early Agyemang-Badu goal. More aggression in the second half saw the Black Stars add two more goals. The team went on to put four on Tunisia.

A midfield of Asamoah, Ageymand-Badu and Annan isn’t very creative, by Asamoah has the range of passing to connect with the wide creators Appiah will rely on.

Outlook: It’s difficult to see Ghana doing better than they have in the last three tournaments, and while that would be great for any non-Egypt nation, it will continue to be a disappointment for one of the continent’s titans.

MALI

World rank: 25; CAF rank: 3; Best finish: Runners-up in 1972.

The Eagles beat Ghana in 2012’s third place met and come into the tournament with their highest world ranking in history (a fact that only matters to bloggers looking for section ledes). Because they’ve never qualified for a World Cup, Mali has almost no profile beyond the continent, but with a talented squad that had their first taste of success last year, the Malians are a bona-fide dark horse contender.

History: Despite five semifinals appearances, Mali has been an inconsistent participant for this event. They’ve qualified for only eight of CAF’s 29 championships, though the first time they did so, they made it all the way to 1972’s final.

This year marks their fourth straight Cup appearance, their longest run of consecutive qualifications.

Players: Seydou Keita (Dalian Aernin) is the big star, the captain’s 74 appearances and 20 goals from midfield both squad highs. He’ll play in support of Cheick Diabaté (Bordeaux) and Modibo Maiga (West Ham United) up top, with PSG’s Mohamed Sissoko, a controversial selection, potentially joining him. At the back, Adama Coulibaly (Auxerre), Adama Tamboura (Randers), and Fousseni Diawara (Ajaccio) have a combined 157 international appearances.

How they’ll play: Mali’s capable of playing beautiful soccer, their skill players combining with talented forwards to produce very progressive play when the team starts to move vertically. But the Eagles have typically run hot and cold, often seeming to lack direction or focus. When that happens, they become frustrating and punchless.

Outlook: Opening with Niger helps Mali ease into the tournament, but with Ghana in the second game, Patrice Carteron’s team will have to hit an early stride. The confidence they carry out of that match may be as important as the final score, with Mali possibly advancing regardless of result.

NIGER

World rank: 97; CAF rank: 25; Best finish: Qualified for the 2012 finals.

It can only get better for the Ména, who drew the short straw in a deep group in 2012. They left the tournament without win, having scored only once and never holding a lead. By the time they reached their final game (against Morocco), Niger was already out of the tournament.

History: The result wasn’t that bad considering it was Niger’s first Cup of Nations. In 11 previous attempts, the country had failed to make a continental final, but thanks to South Africa mistakenly playing for draw in their final qualifier against Sierra Leone, Niger qualified for the 2012 championship thanks to a better head-to-head record against the Bafana Bafana and the Leoneans.

Players: Very few of Niger’s squad play outside of Africa, with roughly half the team playing in the country’s 14-team domestic league. Captain Moussa Maâzou (Étoile du Sahel) playing in Tunisia, with William N’Gounou (IF Limhamn Bunkeflo in Sweden) and Amadou Moutari (Le Mans B, France) playing in lower level European leagues. One player (Ismaël Alassane) plays in Kuwait.

How they’ll play: Niger’s squad is much-changed since last tournament’s team. Then, the Ména took mostly players from their domestic league. Now Gernot Rohr’s gone abroad to augment the squad. The selection hints at a 4-4-2 built around Maâzou.

Outlook: They have a better chance at points this year than last, but their prospects to advance are about the same.

source: Getty ImagesCONGO DR

World rank: 101; CAF rank: 27; Best finish: Champions in 1968 and `74.

A recent history of performing below their talent leaves Congo DR with superficially low rankings, but with a smattering of players performing in strong European leagues augmenting a group from former African champion TP Mazembe, Congo has enough weapons to dangerous. Qualifying for their first Cup since 2004, it remains to be seen if the Congolese are just along for the ride, particularly after preparations head coach Claude Le Roy labeled “screwed up” because of player compensation issues.

History: Congo DR (and for a period of time, as Zaire) was one of the continent’s first powers, winning two of the first five tournaments they entered. The program went through a period of insignificance in the 1980s, reemerged in the `90s only to go quite again over the last six years.

Players: Underrated West Bromwich Albion midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu (pictured) is the highest profile player in the squad, but Anderlecht goal scorer Dieumerci Mbokani is not far behind. Other notable names include TP Mazembe striker Trésor Mputu, Freiburg midfielder Cédric Makiadi, Mons wide man Zola Matumona, and Evian defender Cédric Mongongu.

Thirteen of the squad’s 23 players play in the country’s domestic league, with five coming from Mazembe.

How they’ll play: With Mbokani, Mputu, and Lomana LuaLua, this team has a lot of attacking talent. Le Roy seems intent on using them all. With Dioko Kaluyituka and Matumona also capable of scoring goals, the Leopards are can take advantage of any team that fails to make the necessary adjustments.

Outlook: Congo DR can get out of this group. Mali’s preparations have been undermined by injuries, so if Le Roy can lead the Leopards past their own pre-tournament issues, there may be a surprise coming out of Group B. Depending on the result they post against Niger on Thursday, a draw in the group’s final game may be all they need to get through.

SCHEDULE

Sunday, Jan. 20, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Ghana vs. Congo DR
Sunday, Jan. 20, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Mali vs. Niger
Thursday, Jan. 24, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Ghana vs. Mali
Thursday, Jan, 24, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Niger vs. Congo DR
Monday, Jan. 28, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Niger vs. Ghana
Monday, Jan. 28, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Congo DR vs. Mali

Wild guess order of finish:

1. Ghana (9 pts.)
2. Mali (6 pts.)
3. Congo DR (3 pts.)
4. Niger (0 pts.)

Report: Alexis Sanchez growing impatient with Wenger, Arsenal

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 21:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal is watched by James Chester of West Bromwich Albion during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates Stadium on April 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Alexis Sanchez is frustrated, and that doesn’t bode well for Arsenal or its manager Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Stoke announces partnership with MLS side Orlando City ]

The attacker and his coach have had several spats in the Chilean’s two years at the Emirates Stadium, however, their rift was quite evident over the weekend when Sanchez was substituted off against Norwich City. Sanchez reportedly exited through the tunnel without shaking Wenger’s hand and left the stadium directly after.

[ MORE: Ben Afra being targeted by Barcelona after stellar season with Nice ]

According to the Telegraph, Sanchez is miffed about the inconsistent amount of playing time that he has received this season. In 26 league appearances during the 2015-16 campaign, Sanchez has totaled 12 goals, which is tied for first on the team with Olivier Giroud.

Being that the 27-year-old is arguably Arsenal’s most important attacking player, the feud between Sanchez and Wenger certainly isn’t ideal for the French manager. Gunners supporters protested prior to the team’s match against Norwich due to the club’s lack of success over recent seasons.

Sanchez still has two years remaining on his contract with the London side, and even though it isn’t likely that he’ll move this summer, a few teams have expressed interest in the talented winger. Pep Guardiola could make a swoop at Sanchez as he arrives at Manchester City this summer, while Guardiola’s soon-to-be former side Bayern Munich have also made their wishes known.

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Nadim’s path: From Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to Portland

HALMSTAD, SWEDEN - JULY 13:  Raffaella Manieri (R) of Italy and Nadia Nadim (L) of Denmark battle for the ball during the UEFA Women's Euro 2013 group A match between Italy and Denmark at Orjans Vall on July 13, 2013 in Halmstad, Sweden.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Soccer is the one constant in Nadia Nadim’s life since fleeing the Taliban as a young girl.

[ MORE: Stoke City announces partnership with MLS side Orlando City ]

She first learned the game from her father, an Afghan military general who was tragically killed. Later it gave her a sense of belonging as a refugee, and then national pride when she donned the jersey of her adopted Denmark.

Now it’s a career in Portland, Oregon, thousands of miles from where she started.

“I kind of feel it was meant to be, like destiny,” she said of her current career with the Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Nadim is new to Portland this season after spending the last two in New Jersey with Sky Blue FC. Sitting in the warm sunshine after training at the team’s downtown stadium, Nadim wore a Los Angeles Lakers jersey (she’s a Kobe Bryant fan) as she reflected on her journey.

At 28, she’s at a break in medical school studies back home – a good time to see how far the game she loves can take her.

“When that time came I thought I could go and play in a European League, but that would be still so close and similar to what I was used to back home,” she said. “So I wanted to try something different and away from home. Plus, I wanted to play in a league where some of the best players in the world play.”

Nadim’s love for the game started in Kabul, where she grew up. Her father was a big sports fan and when he wasn’t working he’d take his five daughters to play at the local fields. But the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996, and Nadim’s childhood quickly slipped away. Girls were not allowed to go to school, let alone play soccer.

One day when she was about 10, Nadim’s father was summoned to meet with the Taliban leaders. He never returned. The family later learned he was killed.

“Most memories I have are nice ones – until the last year when everything was chaotic,” she said. “Before that, before the stuff that happened with my dad and the Taliban coming to my country, I remember having a really safe childhood where my parents tried to protect us and we had everything we wanted.

“But yeah, that changed really, really drastically after they came to power.”

In an Islamic state, women were not allowed to have jobs or even leave the home without a male relative. That made life untenable for her mother, who faced raising five girls on her own. They fled.

“It happened really quick,” she said. “It’s not like anything you can plan for.”

The family made it to Pakistan, where they paid a smuggler and got to Italy. The group had hoped to make it to England, but a driver dropped them off in “the middle of nowhere.” It turned out to be Denmark.

The family was in a Copenhagen refugee camp for six months before they were granted asylum. Nadia was able to go to school, but more importantly, play soccer. It was there she learned that she actually had talent for the game.

A standout for her club team, Nadim got the attention of Denmark’s national team. She was allowed to train with the team but could not play until she got her citizenship at 18. She was the first naturalized citizen to play for the senior team when she made her debut in the 2009 Algarve Cup against the United States.

Her first task? Mark Abby Wambach.

“I wasn’t even supposed to play but the striker got injured in the first 15 minutes,” she said. “I wasn’t even warmed up when they said, `Nadia! Go!”‘

When not on national team duty, Nadim played in Europe while also going to school. She is currently studying to become a plastic surgeon – not the cosmetic type but the reconstructive type. She has one year left.

Nadim first ventured to the United States in 2014 when she played six games with Sky Blue while on loan from Danish club Fortuna Hjorring, scoring six goals. The next year, she started in all 18 games for Sky Blue.

Nadim was traded to Portland in a draft-day deal before the season. Already she has made an impact off the ball, which is what the Thorns have asked of her, new head coach Mark Parsons said.

“Her game is winning games and scoring goals, but we’ve needed her in different role. I think that sums her up. She’s a winner, she’s a great character and she’s willing to do what it takes for the team,” Parsons said.

Nadim is still getting comfortable with the Thorns and her new, albeit temporary, home. The NWSL streams all her games live so her mother Hamida can watch from Denmark.

“I hope to make some more great memories with the Portland Thorns,” she said. “We have a really, really special team here with a lot of quality players. I feel really fortunate to be here and I enjoy playing, and I love the way we play.”

Stoke City announces partnership with Orlando City

during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Chelsea at Britannia Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Stoke on Trent, England.
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Americans have been heavily involved in Premier League management, including John Henry at Liverpool and the Glazer family who own Manchester United.

[ MORE: LAFC is one step closer to joining MLS, after finding home for stadium ]

Friday marked a dawn of a new relationship between the PL and MLS though, when Stoke City announced a strategic partnership with Orlando City SC.

[ MORE: Rapids-RSL highlights Week 10 action around MLS ]

The goal of the agreement between the two sides is to advance player recruitment and development, as well spark fan engagement in both leagues.

Potters Chief Executive Tony Scholes:

“It’s an opportunity for us to share best practice with Orlando in a variety of areas, primarily in player recruitment, marketing and development, but also to give both clubs chance to grow in each other’s markets,” said Scholes.

“A large number of our fans already regard Orlando as their MLS side and I know that Stoke City are already followed by many Orlando fans.

“As an established Premier League club we are always looking at new ways to develop our profile overseas and our strategic partnership will help us to develop in the United States.”

NBC’s recent coverage of the PL has sparked massive interest in the United States, giving fans various opportunities to watch matches over the course of a weekend. As MLS continues to grow as well, you can surely expect interest abroad, specifically in Europe, to grow too.

Phil Rawlins, Founder and President of Orlando City, is excited with the relationship building between the two clubs.

“It was very clear that we’ve always had a good relationship with Stoke City and it came down to us wanting to reignite that synergy and bring our brands closer together. This will be our only partnership in England, and we hope to ignite passions for both our clubs in each other’s markets.”

The pursuit of MLS to become a top league has a ways to go, but a move like this will surely only benefit commissioner Don Garber and the rest of MLS.

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Gareth Bale, Keylor Navas injuries present challenge for Real Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 18:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid controls the ball under pressure from Joel Matip of Schalke uring the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, second leg match between Real Madrid and FC Schalke 04 at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 18, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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After narrowly escaping Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal against Manchester City, 1-0, Real Madrid is facing a bit of difficult news.

[ MORE: Ben Afra drawing interest from Barcelona ]

The club has confirmed injuries to both Gareth Bale and goalkeeper Keylor Navas, despite each player going the full 90 minutes midweek. Bale has reportedly sustained a knee problem, while Navas has suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon.

The extent of the injuries is not yet known, although Bale’s appears to be less severe. With Madrid down a goalkeeper, reserve team keeper Kiko Casilla will likely take over in net for Real while Navas recovers.

Madrid will host Valencia on Sunday in La Liga, with both players expected to miss the match. Bale could reportedly return for Real’s match against Deportivo La Coruna on May 14, their final league game. The team can then turn its attention to the Champions League final against rival Atletico Madrid on May 28.

Real currently sits one point behind La Liga leader Barcelona and second place Atleti with two games to play.

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