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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.)

Klopp hopes for speedy solution in club, fans’ ticket-price dispute

Liverpool's fans wave flags during the English League Cup semifinal second leg soccer match between Liverpool and Stoke City at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
AP Photo/Jon Super
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From his time at Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp is used to a much more positive, family-like, everyone-pulling-in-the-same-direction atmosphere at his club of employment, so the present goings-on at Liverpool understandably have the Reds’ first-year manager feeling more than a little uneasy.

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Saturday’s late 2-2 draw with Sunderland wasn’t the first time Liverpool fans have headed for the exit before the final whistle, leaving Klopp feeling all alone, but it was the first time the fans have departed from Anfield early in a pre-planned, organized manner (Klopp missed the game himself with appendicitis). The Anfield faithful didn’t walk out on 77 minutes due to their team’s poor performance — Liverpool were 2-0 ahead at the time — but in protest of steadily rising ticket prices, which were unveiled at $111 per game to sit in the 132-year-old stadium’s new main stand next season.

Klopp, coming from the Bundesliga, where a season ticket at clubs the size of Bayern Munich and Dortmund doesn’t cost much more than a single-game ticket at many Premier League grounds, understands the fans’ frustration. At the end of the day, though, he works for the club, which is why he just wants the whole thing settled quickly, for the sake of his squad — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s not what we want. What I know is everyone in the club has a big interest in finding a solution for this. We don’t want people to leave the stadium before the game is finished.”

An LFC TV appearance by Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre, in which he was expected to answer fan-submitted questions, was consequently canceled on Monday due to the ongoing dispute.

West Ham want Payet to sign new contract for fear of losing him this summer

Dimitri Payet, West Ham United FC (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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Dimitri Payet is going to be a red-hot commodity during this summer’s transfer window, there’s no doubt about it.

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Given he’s currently contracted to one of the Premier League’s “smaller” clubs — in comparison to some of the giants which are bound to be interested — West Ham United, there’s a decent-to-good chance he could be wearing a different club’s shirt come August. Especially if the 28-year-old attacker shows up and shows out at this summer’s European Championship in his native France.

If I can foresee the interest in Payet, then so too can the executives at West Ham, which is why manager Slaven Bilic took to the press on Monday to convey his desire for Payet to consider signing a new, increased contract at his earliest convenience — quotes from the Guardian:

“We are moving, the club is moving, with the new stadium, with the revenue and everything. We have to move and the most important move is to keep your best players and to add some new players who are needed and Dimitri Payet is our best player — I have no problem whatsoever to say that. Of course, I would love to have him happy, long term, at the club.”

Of course West Ham want Payet to sign a new deal immediately — doing so would accomplish two things in the club’s eyes: 1) increase the likelihood he remains at the club next season, or 2) insure the club receives a higher transfer fee for the player if he leaves in the summer anyway. The more total money remaining on his West Ham contract, the more they can demand of a prospective buyer.

[ MORE: Ronaldo commits himself to Real Madrid through 2018 ]

From Payet’s side — unless he has absolutely zero desire to move to a club like Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester United, where he’d likely be paid close to $200,000 per week — he’d be crazy to sign a new contract at this point. Not only would it make a move this summer more difficult, but a strong showing at EURO 2016 could be worth another $15,000 or $20,000 per week on a new contract with West Ham (his current contract is rumored to be close to $100,000 per week).

With as many as five seasons still remaining on his current contract (a one-year club option can be exercised at any point), and his stock perhaps at an all-time high, the next six months could hold Payet’s last chance to get really, really paid before he hits the downside of his career.

USWNT players’ union responds in USSF lawsuit

FILE - In this Sunday, July 5, 2015 file photo, the United States Women's National Team celebrates with the trophy after they beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The U.S. Soccer Federation’s original lawsuit against the union for its champion women’s national team has been sealed after the governing body realized it had disclosed the home addresses and email accounts of many players, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
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(AP) — The union that represents the Women’s World Cup-winning American national team opposed an expedited schedule in the lawsuit filed against it by the U.S. Soccer Federation last week, insisting no collective bargaining agreement exists.

The federation sued in an attempt to establish it has a contract with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association that runs through this year’s Olympics until Dec. 31. The union maintains the memorandum of understanding agreed to in March 2013 can be terminated at any time.

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The USSF filed a motion Friday in U.S. District Court in Chicago asking for an expedited schedule, and the submitted opposition papers Monday that claim “facts asserted in the motion are nowhere near accurate and are hotly disputed.”

The union also maintains the USSF knew about the disagreement since July but did nothing about it.

An initial status conference is set for April 4.

Lionel Messi to undergo tests for lingering kidney problems

FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi holds the ball during a quarterfinal, second leg, Copa del Rey soccer match against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi is to undergo medical tests to assess a recurrence of kidney problems.

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup | Barca win on Sunday

Messi missed the Club World Cup semifinal in December due to a renal colic, an abdominal ailment often related to the presence of kidney stones within renal ducts.

Barcelona says in a statement Monday that the tests to be conducted by Tuesday at the latest, are “to assess the evolution of the kidney problem he suffered last December.”

[ MORE: Champions League returns next week — KO round matchups ]

The statement says Messi will resume training with the squad on Wednesday, when Barcelona travels to Valencia for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals in which it carries a 7-0 lead.