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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.)

WATCH: Man City’s Aguero, Nasri play soccer tennis atop Great Wall of China

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Manchester City stars Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero have both been under pressure in recent weeks for being out of shape, at least according to Pep Guardiola’s pizza-free standards.

One way to help fix that is better fitness, though we’re doubting that soccer tennis atop the Great Wall of China is necessarily going to tip the scales (pun absolutely, 100 percent intended).

[ MORE: Guzan finds new PL home ]

Nasri and James Horsfield of Man City took on teammates Aguero and Kelechi Iheanacho in the match, which resulted in a half-dozen balls sent over the wall.

Games like this, sometimes even more than actual matches, remind many of us how far we are from the magical touch and control of elite players.

Reports: Pogba passes Manchester United medical; Announcement nears

Juventus FC v US Sassuolo Calcio - Serie A
Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
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The seemingly inevitable to end to years of speculation is nigh.

With the record-breaking fee agreed, Paul Pogba has reportedly passed his medical with Manchester United and is set to join the club in England.

It’s also worth noting that Pogba hasn’t been dealing with injuries, and reporting that he’s passed a medical is a pretty safe bet.

[ MORE: Guzan finds new PL home ]

Pogba, 23, left Manchester United for Juventus in 2012 after the Old Trafford club didn’t meet his contractual demands, infuriating then-manager Alex Ferguson.

His play at Juventus proved his caliber, and new boss Jose Mourinho has been adamant that United needed to acquire the midfielder.

Hints that Real Madrid — who loooooves to break transfer records — had edged back into the race have been squashed, though we’ve learned anything can happen when United and Real are involved in a transfer (See: De Gea, Beckham, Ronaldo).

Atletico Madrid edges frame-rattling Spurs 1-0; Yedlin impresses at LB

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 29:  DeAndre Yedlin of Tottenham Hotspur and Sime Vrsaljko of Atletico de Madrid compete for the ball during 2016 International Champions Cup Australia match between Tottenham Hotspur and Atletico de Madrid at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 29, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images
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Diego Godin’s close range redirection gave Atletico Madrid a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in an open match in Australia on Friday.

The International Champions Cup match was missing several big names including Harry Kane, Koke, Dele Alli, and Antoine Griezmann, so it’s hard to make any judgments either way.

[ MORE: Guzan finds new PL home ]

Spurs rattled the post and banged one off the crossbar in the loss, which comes days after a 2-1 setback of sorts against Juventus.

USMNT back DeAndre Yedlin and American prospect Cameron Carter-Vickers started in the back line. Yedlin was again at left back, and impressed in 60 minutes of work.

Godin appeared to be well offside in the 40th minute when Kyle Walker‘s ill-fated flick came his way inside the six.

USMNT keeper Guzan staying in Premier League, joins Boro

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 16:  Goalkeeper Brad Guzan #1 of the United States defends against Ecuador during the 2016 Quarterfinal - Copa America Centenario match at CenturyLink Field on June 16, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
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Brad Guzan is leaving a relegation campaign, and hopes he won’t be facing another.

The USMNT goalkeeper and starter at this summer’s Copa America Centenario, Guzan was announced Friday as the latest signing in a busy summer for newly-promoted Middlesbrough.

[ EUROPA: West Ham loses in Slovenia ]

Guzan will have a heck of a battle for the No. 1 shirt, as new recruit Victor Valdes and incumbent Dimitrios Konstantopoulos are in the fold at Riverside Stadium.

The 31-year-old leaves Aston Villa after eight seasons and 171 appearances, a tenure that included a 16-appearance loan to Hull City. He was a runner-up in the League Cup and FA Cup, and internationally won the Golden Glove at the 2015 Gold Cup.

Boro have added Antonio Barragan, Alvaro Negredo, Gaston Ramirez, Viktor Fischer, Marten de Roon, and Bernardo Espinosa this summer in preparation for their first PL campaign since 2008-09.