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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.)

Jose Mourinho set for talks with Manchester United

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Jose Mourinho is closing in on taking over at Manchester United.

Multiple reports claim Mourinho’s agent, Jorge Mendes, will meet with United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward and other representatives in London on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Louis Van Gaal left the Red Devils.

[ MORE: LVG issues statement ]

It is believed that a deal may be struck on Tuesday but confirmation of Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford will not come until later this week, perhaps within the next 48 hours.

Late on Monday it was confirmed that Van Gaal was fired by United after two seasons in charge which saw them finish in fourth-place and fifth-place in the Premier League. Just two days after securing the FA Cup at Wembley — United’s first trophy since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013 — LVG was gone.

Van Gaal’s Dutch coaching staff also departed but mystery over the future of United legend Ryan Giggs remains. Giggs, 42, was LVG’s assistant but now seems set to be overlooked for the second time in the last three years when it comes to being handed the job permanently. Will he stay on and accept a lesser role on United’s coaching staff if Mourinho rolls up?

All the focus is now on the future and that next step and Mourinho arriving seems inevitable, as well the most logical and best available option.

Is it a risk? Of course it is.

[ VIDEO: Most bizarre moments of LVG’s reign ]

Mourinho, 53, was fired by Chelsea last December, just seven months after delivering a third PL title for the Blues. Their title defense was woeful and Mourinho left them one point above the relegation zone as his off-field antics — the Eva Carneiro situation, cryptic post-game press conferences and public condemnation of his star players — saw Chelsea rapidly unravel at the seams.

However, he is a born winner and has delivered trophies wherever he has managed.

He’s won two UEFA Champions League titles, three PL trophies, two Serie A’s, a La Liga crown and two Portuguese titles. He is a trophy machine and everything points to him delivering short-term success at United.

For the long-term, he may not align fully with their philosophy and ideology of promoting youth and being a proponent of sportsmanship and fair play, yet Mourinho is a winner and he gets the job done whatever way he can. Right now, that’s exactly what United need.

This is not the perfect fit but it is a necessary one as one of the most powerful and wealthy clubs on the planet looks to get back to winning where it matters most: on the pitch.

Pardew says Crystal Palace need a “big name” signing this summer

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21:  Alan Pardew manager of Crystal Palace gives a thumbs up during The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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After losing to Manchester United in the FA Cup final on Sunday, Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew is already looking ahead to next season.

The Eagles’ boss was happy with his team’s performance against United, but admitted that the club needs to bring in some more talent over the summer transfer window.

MORE: All 2015-16 PL season reviews ]

Speaking about his summer plans, Pardew said he wants to bring a “big name” to Selhurst Park to help Palace continue their plan of growth.

We have shown that we have got talent in the group. We need to refine it a little bit, and we are going to try to do that in the transfer market. But we were a force to be reckoned with against Manchester United. We have given a real good, honest account of ourselves.

I think we have got to get players who are better than this. There is no point in getting players who are not potentially better than the ones we have got. Well, then they have got to be good players. So will there be a big name in there? There’s going to need to be.

After a hot start to the 2015-16 Premier League season, many believed Pardew had a Palace side that was able to compete in the top half of the table for a spot in Europe. However, after sitting fifth on Boxing Day, Palace won just two of their final 21 matches and slid all the way down to 15th on the table.

[ MORE: The best moments of LVG’s memorable yet bizzare tenure at Man United ]

Palace has far too much talent to be languishing near the relegation zone, but Pardew is right that work must be done over the summer. If the club’s new American ownership is willing to spend, a quality striker will be Pardew’s first target.

Last summer’s striker signing Connor Wickham finished the season tied for the team lead with five goals, level with Yohan Cabaye and Scott Dann. When considering that four of Cabaye’s five goals came from the penalty spot and that Dann is a center-back, the Eagles’ lack of attacking depth is quite clear.

FIFA fires finance director Kattner over bonus payments

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  FIFA Acting Secretary General Markus Kattner looks on prior to the Extraordinary FIFA Congress at Hallenstadion on February 26, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
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GENEVA (AP) FIFA has fired finance director and interim secretary general Markus Kattner after an internal investigation revealed he got irregular bonus payments worth millions of dollars.

Kattner was due the payments over a six-year period from 2008-14 from additions to his employment contract, a person familiar with the FIFA investigation said Monday.

The extra payments were signed off by then-President Sepp Blatter and then-secretary general Jerome Valcke, Kattner’s immediate boss in that period.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s FIFA coverage ]

“We don’t yet understand why these payments were made,” the person said on condition of anonymity as details of the investigation are confidential. “These contract provisions were not known widely and not to the appropriate officers at FIFA.”

It is unclear if the contracted payments which came to light last week could form part of a wider investigation of criminal mismanagement at FIFA conducted by Swiss federal prosecutors.

“We are not in a position to determine the legality of the contracts,” the person said, adding that “the appropriate authorities are aware of the issue.”

FIFA’s ethics committee is likely to now open an investigation against the 45-year-old German official, with charges of conflict of interest and disloyalty to FIFA among potential outcomes.

[ MORE: Louis van Gaal officially sacked at Manchester United ]

Kattner joined FIFA as director of finance in 2003 and took the deputy secretary general title in 2007, the year Blatter hired Valcke for the top administrative job of world soccer’s governing body. Kattner was promoted in an interim role when Valcke was suspended last September for financial wrongdoing and then fired in January.

“Markus Kattner has been dismissed from his position effective immediately,” FIFA said in a statement Monday. “FIFA’s internal investigation uncovered breaches of his fiduciary responsibilities in connection with his employment contract.”

FIFA has already announced that United Nations official Fatma Samoura is due to start work next month as the new permanent secretary general.

Kattner’s alleged wrongdoing came to light last Friday, the person said, one week after Samoura’s hiring was announced by President Gianni Infantino.

The 45-year-old German official was at FIFA headquarters on Monday before his firing was announced.

His exit is unconnected with the timing of Samoura’s hiring and expected arrival at FIFA in June, the person said.

[ MORE: Frank Lampard responds after being booed by NYCFC supporters ]

“This is based on documentary evidence that is information which emerged in the last three days,” the person said, with no whistleblower involved in revealing the case.

FIFA is being subjected to an internal investigation led by United States-based legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which is working separately from investigations by federal prosecutors in the U.S. and Switzerland.

As a central figure overseeing FIFA finances for more than 12 years of Blatter’s presidency, Kattner’s name has been linked to allegations in the American and Swiss cases, and investigations of other officials by FIFA’s ethics committee.

Michel Platini has said that his invoice requesting a $2 million payment for backdated salary from FIFA was sent to Kattner in 2010. The now-banned UEFA president got the money approved by Blatter in February 2011.

[ MORE: Uruguay sweating Suarez’s fitness ahead of Copa America Centenario ]

In that case, Platini had a four-year ban confirmed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport this month, and Blatter awaits an appeal at CAS to challenge his six-year ban. They deny wrongdoing.

Kattner is also expected to be sought as a witness in German and Swiss investigations of unexplained payments between German organizers of the 2006 World Cup and FIFA.

When questioned at FIFA news conferences since October, Kattner has said he has been advised by FIFA not to comment on ongoing criminal and ethics cases.

Looking ahead for the USMNT: Two key friendlies before Copa 100

PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD & TOBAGO - NOVEMBER 17: USA's #3 DeAndre Yedlin brings the ball under control as T&T's # 3 Joevin Jones looks on during a World Cup Qualifier between Trinidad and Tobago and USA as part of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers for Russia 2018 at Hasely Crawford Stadium on November 17, 2015 in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago. (Photo by Ashley Allen Getty Images)
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With the Copa America Centenario kicking off next week across the United States, what can we expect from the USMNT in their two upcoming friendlies?

After defeating Puerto Rico in a glorified scrimmage on Sunday, the U.S. has two more matches before the tournament that will pose a much tougher challenge for Klinsmann’s men.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

The USMNT faces Ecuador on Wednesday, May 25 in Texas before traveling to Kansas City to take on Bolivia on Saturday, May 28. Both of those South American sides will be competing in the Copa America.

While Klinsmann may have given some of his younger players minutes against Puerto Rico, you would expect a much stronger lineup to be fielded in the friendlies against Ecuador and Bolivia.

However, as all U.S. Soccer fans know, you can never predict what Jurgen Klinsmann is going to do.

[ MORE: Louis van Gaal sacked after two years at Manchester United ]

Klinsmann confirmed that Brad Guzan will be his number-one goalkeeper at Copa America, which means we will likely see the Aston Villa man in net for both upcoming friendlies.

The USMNT will also get some reinforcements on the back-line with both Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler joining up with the team ahead of the Ecuador match. Cameron and Besler have worked together well as a solid center-back pairing in the past, but Besler will likely find himself behind John Brooks, who is coming off of a great season with Hertha Berlin.

The midfield is probably the biggest question in this team, as Klinsmann has endlessly tinkered with both formation and player selection. Michael Bradley is a surefire pick, but the other spots are much harder to determine. Klinsmann has recalled one of his personal favorites Jermaine Jones to the squad, a veteran who has found some good form in Colorado this season. Jones could slot into the middle alongside Bradley, but at 34-years-old, his lack of pace could cost the U.S. when facing a side like Colombia in the Copa America.

[ MORE: Liverpool set to sign Mainz goalkeeper Loris Karius ]

Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic is the youngest player in the side, with the 17-year-old entering this week with just one cap to his name. While Klinsmann may have brought the teenager just for the learning experience, fans will want to see Pulisic on the pitch and these friendlies could be a time for the midfielder to earn valuable minutes for his progression. However, if Klinsmann has no plans to play Pulisic at the Copa, it would be better for the team’s consistency if he does not feature in the pre-tournament matches.

Up top, Bobby Wood may have finally done enough to lock down a starting position. With Jozy Altidore out injured, this is Wood’s time to shine and prove he should be Klinsmann’s first choice striker every match.

The USMNT kicks off the Copa America Centenario on June 3 in Santa Clara, California, facing Colombia at Levis Stadium.