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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.)

Ranking the top 20 players at Rio 2016 Olympics

Brazil's Neymar celebrates his goal on a penalty kick against the United States during the second half of a friendly soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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It is just one week until the Olympic soccer tournament kicks off at Rio 2016.

Pumped? Yeah, I thought so.

[ STREAM: Watch Olympic soccer here ]

With the likes of Neymar, Hirving Lozano and Manuel Lanzini in the men’s tournament, plus Carli Lloyd, Marta and Alex Morgan on the women’s tournament, the battle for Gold is always intense and we often see plenty of rising stars come of age at the Olympics.

Below is a list of the top 20 players in both the men’s and women’s competitions in Rio.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.


Men’s

  1. Neymar (Brazil)
  2. Gabriel Barbosa (Brazil)
  3. Julian Brandt (Germany)
  4. Marquinhos (Brazil)
  5. David Selke (Germany)
  6. Max Meyer (Germany)
  7. Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
  8. Lars Bender (Germany)
  9. Felipe Anderson (Brazil)
  10. Manuel Lanzini (Argentina)
  11. Thiago Maia (Brazil)
  12. Teo Gutierrez (Colombia)
  13. Ali Adnan (Iraq)
  14. Oribe Peralta  (Mexico)
  15. Son Heung-min (Korea Republic)
  16. Gabriel Jesus (Brazil)
  17. Angel Correa (Argentina)
  18. Giovanni Simeone (Argentina)
  19. Matthias Ginter (Germany)
  20. Jonathan Calleri (Argentina)

Women’s

  1. Carli Lloyd (USA)
  2. Marta (Brazil)
  3. Alex Morgan (USA)
  4. Christine Sinclair (Canada)
  5. Eugenie Le Sommer (France)
  6. Amandine Henry (France)
  7. Dzsenifer Marozsan (Germany)
  8. Camille Abily (France)
  9. Anja Mittag (Germany)
  10. Alexandra Popp (Germany)
  11. Becky Sauerbrunn (USA)
  12. Forminga (Brazil)
  13. Hope Solo (USA)
  14. Lotta Schelin (Sweden)
  15. Caroline Seger (Sweden)
  16. Saskia Bartusiak (Germany)
  17. Megan Rapinoe (USA)
  18. Kosovare Asllani (Sweden)
  19. Julie Johnston (USA)
  20. Tobin Heath (USA)

Zlatan to MLS? David Beckham wants him in Miami

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 18: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of PSG celebrates with team mate David Beckham after scoring to make it 3-0 during the Ligue 1 match between Paris Saint-Germain FC and Stade Brestois 29 at Parc des Princes on May 18, 2013 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Zlatan Ibrahimovich is keen on Major League Soccer.

The Manchester United striker, 34, just linked up with his new team for the first time on their return to Europe and is ready to get going in preseason ahead of his first-ever season in the Premier League. .

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However, in an interview with Goal.com he has revealed that former teammate at Paris Saint-Germain, David Beckham, wants him to join his MLS expansion side in Miami.

Here’s what Zlatan had to say about a potential link-up with Becks once again:

“David is a good friend of mine, and he has asked me to play for his [Miami] team,” Ibrahimovic said. “For now, I want to achieve big things with Manchester United, but I have a lot of respect for the MLS, and anything is possible. I am not ruling out the MLS. Once I had decided to leave PSG there were many offers, but with Zlatan that is normal.

“I know that teams from the MLS were interested, but the opportunity to play for Manchester United, and of course to work with my good friend Jose Mourinho again, was impossible to turn down. I would never rule out the MLS in the future. I have a contract with Manchester United, but I feel in great shape. I feel as though I could play until I am 40. It is impossible to predict the future.”

So, there you go. The enigmatic Swedish striker is certainly keen on a move to MLS and who wouldn’t be if this Miami franchise ever gets off the ground?

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Although a stadium site is almost sorted in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, Beckham and his ownership group still have plenty of hurdles to overcome to make his team a reality.

It would certainly help if Zlatan was around though — both on and off the pitch — and the towering striker has only signed a one-year deal with Manchester United so unless he rips it up in the Premier League this season, expect the Zlatan-to-MLS talk to fire up around January 2017.

Chelsea’s Antonio Conte questions sustainability of big spending

VELDEN, AUSTRIA - JULY 20:  Head coach Antonio Conte of Chelsea looks on prior the friendly match between WAC RZ Pellets and Chelsea F.C. at Worthersee Stadion on July 20, 2016 in Velden, Austria. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
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Chelsea boss Antonio Conte is amazed by the “crazy” transfers occurring this summer.

The new Chelsea manager has spent over $85 million himself on just two players — Michy Batshuayi and N'Golo Kante — but he believes the huge transfer fees being seen across European soccer cannot continue.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Speaking in the U.S. ahead of Chelsea’s opening 2016 International Champions Cup game against Liverpool at the Pasadena Rose Bowl on Wednesday, Conte laughed as he tried to get his head around fees such as Paul Pogba set to leave Juventus for over $130 million and Gonzalo Higuain joining Juve for $98.7 million.

“We are seeing a crazy market, no? It is incredible. When you want a player it is very difficult because you must pay a lot of money. A lot of money,” Conte said. “I don’t know if this situation can continue. We are starting to speak about 100 million, 120 million or 95 million, these prices are incredible, no? They are incredible.

“We must keep and maintain the patience for this sport. I think this is the most important thing. The money is important but not all. It is important for the club to reach the right target and not only to spend because we want to spend money. No. It is not right for me. It is right to take the player and adapt in our idea of football.”

Conte’s belief is admirable but how realistic is it?

With Chelsea the fourth-highest spenders in European soccer this summer — only Juventus, Barcelona and Liverpool has spent more — he can’t exactly say his club isn’t part of the big money transfers he seemingly isn’t a fan of.

[ MORE: Real Madrid in for Pogba?

The Blues may need at least one or two new players before the season begins and if things aren’t going well for Conte then in January you’d expect him to be given even more cash from Roman Abramovich.

What the former Italian national team manager is trying to say is that he aims to mold the players into his style rather than making wholesale changes. Chelsea has plenty of quality for Conte to work with in their squad but can the Blues really afford to get left behind in the great arms race for star players currently happening?

FA Cup to trial using a fourth substitute this season

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21:  Manchester United players celebrate victory with the trophy after The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England. Man Utd won 2-1 after extra time.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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A fourth substitute will be made available for FA Cup games which go into extra time in the quarterfinals, semifinals or final during the 2016-17 season.

The English FA announced the change on Wednesday with the new method used for the first time to try and see if it helps teams combat fatigue during extra time periods.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Another change to the 2016-17 FA Cup is that there will be no replays in the quarterfinal stage, meaning the games will finish on the day with extra time and penalties to take place if required.

In a statement on the FA’s website the governing body of English soccer revealed the proposal is subject to IFAB approval but will be used to test the effectiveness of one extra sub.

[ MORE: EFL Trophy includes 10 PL teams ]

The format was used in the Copa America Centenario this summer and FA chief executive Martin Glenn is intrigued to see how it works.

“With The Cup now adopting a straight knockout format from the quarter finals onwards, the introduction of a fourth substitute in extra time will bring extra intrigue and interest. Also, from a technical point of view, it will be interesting to see how managers use the chance to make an additional substitution in such high-profile games and the impact it has on the final result.

“Player welfare and being mindful of the number of games people play at the elite level has also been a consideration.”

This may spice plenty of extra time periods which usually peter out and become a warm of attrition with both teams unwilling to take risks and clinging on for penalty kicks.

Having an extra sub may help spark added energy to proceedings but with both teams having a sub, they may just cancel each other out.

Anyways, kudos to the FA for trying something new.