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.)

LIVE: Seven Premier League clubs in League Cup action

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Six Premier League teams enter the League Cup (officially known as the Carabao Cup in 2017-18) on Wednesday with plenty of potential upsets lined up for the second round.

[ LIVE: Follow League Cup scores ]

Out of the seven PL clubs who began their League Cup quest on Tuesday, six remain with Watford the only casualties to lower-league opposition.

Newcastle, Southampton, West Ham and Stoke City are all in action on Wednesday as all six PL clubs face lower-league opponents for a spot in the third round, which is when the seven PL teams in European action enter the competition.

U.S. national team players to watch out for include Huddersfield Town’s Danny Williams who starts against Rotherham, while Eric Lichaj starts for Nottingham Forest at Newcastle United.

Below is the schedule for the League Cup games on Wednesday with all games to kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET unless otherwise stated.


Wednesday’s League Cup second round games

Newcastle United vs. Nottingham Forest
Southampton vs. Wolves
Huddersfield Town vs. Rotherham United
Cheltenham vs. West Ham United
Stoke City vs. Rochdale – 3 p.m. ET
Blackburn Rovers vs. Burnley

LIVE: Liverpool-Hoffenheim headlines UCL playoffs

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Expect another big UEFA Champions League night at Anfield on Wednesday as Liverpool look to get by Bundesliga side Hoffenheim and reaching the UCL group stage.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ] 

Jurgen Klopp’s side lead 2-1 after the first leg in Germany last week, meaning Hoffenheim will have to score twice at Anfield to have any chance of advancing. Given the fact that Hoffenheim had a penalty kick saved and spurned several glorious chance at home in the first leg, Liverpool’s shaky defense could provide another nervous evening for the home fans.

Klopp will be hoping his jet-propelled attack of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino will have enough to put Liverpool in the UCL group stage for the first time since 2014.

Liverpool and CSKA Moscow are the only home teams to return with a first leg lead, while Sporting Lisbon head to Steaua Bucharest after a 0-0 draw in Portugal for the first leg.

APOEL Nicosia travel to Prague to take on Slavia with a tidy 2-0 lead on aggregate but an early goal for the hosts could change the entire complexion of that tie. Azerbaijan outfit Qarabag head to the Danish capital with a 1-0 lead over FC Copenhagen but, again, an early goal for the hosts will make all the difference.

The five winners of these ties will join Celtic, Sevilla, Maribor, Napoli and Olympiacos in the group stage draw on Thursday as those five teams qualified via the playoffs on Tuesday.

Below is the full schedule for Wednesday’s games, which kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET, while you can click on the link above to follow live commentary on all five matches.

Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League playoff second legs

Liverpool vs. Hoffenheim (Liverpool lead 2-1 on aggregate)
FC Copenhagen vs. FK Qarabag (FK Qarabag lead 1-0 on aggregate)
Slavia Prague vs. APOEL (APOEL lead 2-0 on aggregate)
CSKA Moscow vs. Young Boys (CSKA Moscow lead 1-0 on aggregate)
Steaua Bucharest vs. Sporting Lisbon (0-0 after first leg)

Premier League player Power Rankings – Week 2

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For the second time in the 2017-18 Premier League season we rank the form players and, somewhat predictably, there are plenty of new entries and lots of chopping and changing in our rankings.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive ]

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the PL right now.


  1. Paul Pogba (Man United) – New entry
  2. Romelu Lukaku (Man United) – Down 1
  3. David Luiz (Chelsea) – New entry
  4. Javier Hernandez (West Ham) – New entry
  5. Wayne Rooney (Everton) – New entry
  6. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – Up 2
  7. David Silva (Man City) – Down 3
  8. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Man United) – New entry
  9. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield) – Up 7
  10. Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City) – New entry
  11. Marcos Alonso (Chelsea) – New entry
  12. Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) – Down 7
  13. Willian (Chelsea) – New entry
  14. Steve Mounie (Huddersfield) – Down 12
  15. Manolo Gabbiadini (Southampton) – New entry
  16. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – Down 9
  17. Jordan Pickford (Everton) – New entry
  18. Harry Maguire (Leicester City) – New entry
  19. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – Down 9
  20. Anthony Martial (Man United) – New entry

Men In Blazers pod: Chelsea, Man United, Rooney all feature

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Rog and Davo break down Chelsea’s win at Tottenham’s footballing Airbnb, Wembley. Plus, another 4-0 win for Manchester United. And Wayne Rooney scores in Everton’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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