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.)

CCL wrap: FC Dallas disappoints; Club America struts (video)

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The CONCACAF Champions League returned Tuesday with Toronto FC’s 2-0 quarterfinal first leg win in Colorado, and a trio of ties began Wednesday across Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras.

[ WATCH: Fred’s vicious free kick ]

Tauro 1-0 FC Dallas

Veteran striker Edwin Aguilar scored a big goal, and goalkeeper Oscar McFarlane did plenty of good things as the Panamanian side struck a wild first blow against its MLS visitors.

Here’s a random fact underscoring how remarkable of a failure this would be for FC Dallas: Only six of Tauro’s roster members have their own Wikipedia page.

Deportivo Saprissa 1-5 Club America

Cecilio Dominguez and Mateus Uribe each bagged a brace, and Renato Ibarra also scored as the tournament’s top team sauntered into and out of Costa Rica on Wednesday. Club America has been to seven CCL finals, and one every single one.

Motagua vs. Club Tijuana — 10 a.m. ET

Honduran hosts hope to have a leg to stand on — pun intended — once the tie heads to Mexico.

West Ham to friendly neighbors Dag & Red: “Will help save our club”

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English Conference Premier side Dagenham and Redbridge has seen better days, and is getting a hand from a Premier League pal.

[ WATCH: Fred’s vicious free kick ]

West Ham United will pay a visit to Dag & Red as part of the latter’s #SaveTheDaggers campaign, and the March 21 date will cost fans between $7 and $21 to see a top flight side at 6,000-seat Victoria Road.

Dagenham and Redbridge chairman Paul Gwinn said, “It really will help save our club.”

“So please come on down to the Chigwell Construction Stadium for an additional night of football. Bring a friend, or two, or more and we can use the gate takings to help get us back on track,” reads a press release.

Dag & Red was founded in 1992 and climbed as high as League One in 2011, and plays just 2.5 miles from West Ham United’s training ground. Newcastle’s Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle are among Dag & Red alums in the Premier League.

It’s a terrific gesture from West Ham, and is even more impressive in the United States where the growing club game is increasingly cutthroat (especially between non-synced leagues).

Angry Di Francesco extremely quotable after Roma loss

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AS Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco absolutely roasted his charges after i Lupi tossed aside a Cenzig Under-inspired lead to fall 2-1 at Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Wednesday.

Di Francesco had praise for Edin Dzeko, who assisted Under’s goal, as well as goalkeeper Alisson, but was mostly enraged by his side.

[ MORE: Recap + Fred’s vicious free kick ]

Rather than construct a narrative, we’re going to point out our five favorite selections from Di Francesco’s post-match talk.

4) “The difference was that in the first half we tried to hurt them while in the second we were looking to hold on – to what? I don’t know.”

— “To what? I don’t know” is hilarious. Di Francesco’s side has posted some serious wins this season, including killing off Chelsea 3-0 at home and coming back from 2-0 to draw the Blues at Stamford Bridge. He doesn’t preach sitting back.

3) “There were far too many schoolboy errors – even by players with a wealth of international experience.”

— Schoolboy errors!

2) “I saw two completely different teams out there today. There were lots of players I should have taken off after we conceded the first goal.”

— Again, one mistake by a number of players on Facundo Ferreyra is enough for Di Francesco. He’s not just happy to be here.

1) “I can’t imagine we’d get arrogant just because we’re winning an important game. It’s not as if Roma are used to reaching the final every year.”

— When you’re willing to essentially rip an entire club’s history — Roma’s been to just two UCL quarterfinals since losing the final to Liverpool in 1984 — you’re putting your footprints in new cement.

Europa League preview: Rating every second leg

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Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund are one of many teams with their UEFA Europa League fates realistically in the balance come Thursday’s second legs of the Round of 32.

[ MORE: Sevilla 0-1 Man Utd | Mourinho reacts ]

Aside from a sextet of big teams posting blowouts, there’s still hope for the Round of 16 and a step closer to an automatic berth in the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League.

Basically done

Atletico Madrid 4-1 Copenhagen — 1 p.m. ET
Sporting Lisbon 3-1 Astana — 1 p.m. ET
Arsenal 3-0 Ostersund — 3:05 p.m. ET
Milan 3-0 Ludogorets Razgrad — 3:05 p.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao 3-1 Spartak Moscow — 3:05 p.m. ET
Braga 0-3 Marseille — 3:05 p.m. ET

In four of these cases, the heavy favorites emerged with multiple goal leads and at least three away goals.

Actually done

CSKA Moscow beat Red Star Belgrade 1-0 on Wednesday to win 1-0 on aggregate.

Unlikely, but big club lurks

RB Leipzig 3-1 Napoli — 1 p.m. ET
Villarreal 1-3 Lyon — 1 p.m. ET

In the case of Napoli, their 3-1 home loss to Leipzig was stunning but it’s impossible to rule out a club with such firepower. Villarreal trails by two to Lyon, but is home and dangerous.

Advantage one side, but anyone’s guess

Lokomotiv Moscow 3-2 Nice — 11 a.m. ET
Lazio 0-1 FCSB — 1 p.m. ET
Zenit Saint-Petersburg 0-1 Celtic — 1 p.m. ET
Red Bull Salzburg 2-2 Real Sociedad — 3:05 p.m. ET
Atalanta 2-3 Borussia Dortmund — 3:05 p.m. ET

Salzburg’s two away goals in a draw feels like a one-goal lead, and the one-goal matches are especially interesting. In the case of Atalanta, 1-0 to the Serie A side could undo Michy Batshuayi‘s first leg heroics for BVB.

Wide open

Plzen 1-1 Partizan Belgrade — 1 p.m. ET
Dynamo Kyiv 1-1 AEK Athens — 1 p.m. ET

Yes, nil-nil will get it done for the hosts, but there wasn’t a 0-0 in the entire group of first legs.