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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.)

MLS Snapshot: Orlando City 2-1 New York City FC

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 15:  Kaka #10 of Orlando City SC gives directions to his teammates during an International friendly soccer match between West Bromwich Albion and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on July 15, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. Orlando won the match 3-1. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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The match in 100 words or less: The game started amid pouring rain, seemingly a foreshadow for the home side. Yet another lead at halftime, yet another lead squandered. Then, Kaka decided he didn’t want to go home disappointed again. The Brazilian bagged a penalty – his second goal of the match – to see Orlando City back on top of Eastern Conference powers NYCFC, and the back line held under pressure through the final 20 minutes to keep Orlando’s playoff hopes very much alive.

Three Four moments that mattered:

 

32′ – Kaka did it all himself, and Orlando snatched a 1-0 lead. Bursting down the right flank, Kaka cut inside, weaved around a poor attempt by Jefferson Mena to wall him off, and took two shots on goal. The first was saved by Saunders, but the second snuck in past the goalkeeper spread-eagle on the ground.

55′ – Orlando had a glorious opportunity to putting NYCFC out of reach four minutes later as Cyle Larin and Kevin Molino isolated Mena two-on-one, but Molino’s touch was poor and the ball skittered away from Larin. With the missed chance, Orlando squandered yet another lead a minute later. A shot by Frank Lampard just outside the six-yard box forced a save by Bendik, and the rebound fell to Stiven Mendoza who crashed the equalizer into the back of the net.

62′ – The home side having coughed up yet another lead, Orlando City restored their advantage. Julio Baptista snatched the ball off Jason Hernandez on the left flank deep in NYCFC territory, and he fed Kaka who was felled by Maxine Chanot, forcing the referee to point to the spot. The Brazilian deposited the ensuing penalty past a wrong-footed Saunders, and Orlando went back on top.

70′ – Desperate to stay in the match, NYCFC’s defense caved, then saved the match. Molino beat the offside trap and ended up one-on-one with Saunders, but when he rounded the keeper, it allowed time for Ronald Matarrita to race back and make a desperate clearance at the very last moment. He paid the price, slamming into the post as he slid to clear the ball, but he would return with the game still 2-1.

Man of the Match: Kaka

Goalscorers: Kaka (32′, 63′), Mendoza (55′)

Serie A roundup: Fiorentina edges Chievo, Roma coughs up lead, Inter held

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 20:  Kevin Strootman of AS Roma in action during the Serie A match between AS Roma and Udinese Calcio at Olimpico Stadium on August 20, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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An early header by Aston Villa loanee Carlos Sanchez gave Fiorentina its first win of the season in their home opener, a 1-0 result over Chievo Verona.

The Villa midfielder rose high above Dario Dainello to smash home the only goal of the match. Unfortunately, there was a catch as starting goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu was forced off just before halftime with an injury. The 30-year-old Romanian international took a kick to the head and could not continue.

Roma was left highly disappointed after coughing up a 2-0 lead, finishing 2-2 on the road at Cagliari. Diego Pierotti gave the visitors the lead at Stadio Sant’Elia just six minutes in by slotting home a penalty. Just after halftime, Kevin Strootman doubled Roma’s lead with his first goal since February of 2014 by poking in Edin Dzeko‘s headed assist from point-blank range.

However, it would come undone. Marco Borriello would pull Cagliari back within one just 10 minutes after Strootman’s score by tapping in a rebound, and Marco Sau poked one in at the far post to equalize in the 87th minute, sending Roma back with just a point.

Frank de Boer’s debut at the San Siro ended in a 1-1 draw with Palermo as Mauro Icardi headed home completely unmarked in in the 72nd minute to cancel out Andrea Rispoli’s opener just after halftime.

Torino pummeled Bologna at home 5-1 behind a hat-trick from Andrea Belotti. The trio is the first hat-trick of the 22-year-old’s professional career. Josef Martinez and Daniele Baselli also found the scoresheet for Torino who earned their first points of the season.

Elsewhere, Udinese used a goal in the first five minutes and another late in stoppage time to beat 10-man Empoli 2-0. Genoa scored three goals in an 11-minute span early in the second half to top Crotone 3-1. Sassuolo grabbed all three points at home with a 2-1 defeat of Pescara. Finally, Sampdoria came back from an early deficit to top 10-man Atalanta 2-1. Fabio Quagliarella scored from the spot to level things up and Sampdoria grabbed the winner a minute before halftime behind Paraguayan Edgar Barreto.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona squeaks out win, Villarreal and Sevilla ends scoreless

SEVILLE, SPAIN - AUGUST 14:  Ivan Rakitic of FC Barcelona in action during the match between Sevilla FC vs FC Barcelona as part of the Spanish Super Cup Final 1st Leg  at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on August 14, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
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Barcelona rode a first-half header by Ivan Rakitic the whole way to their second win in two league matches with a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Arda Turan delivered the all-important assist, lofting the ball in from the left as Rakitic came streaking in to trail the play and climb high to meet the ball. Marc-Andre ter Stegen stood tall in goal for the visitors to San Mames, making four saves including one off his face to keep a powerful shot by Benat out of net following an embarrassing mistake from the German that opened up the chance.

Sevilla failed to keep pace with Barcelona and the rest of the teams at the top, slumping to a 0-0 draw at Villarreal. The Rojiblancos couldn’t even muster a shot on target, weathering five from the hosts among 12 overall attempts on net. Both sides wasted chances with sloppy crosses and missed shots, with Villarreal coming closest on a goal called back for offsides just before halftime. A Mateo Musacchio header found substitute Rafael Borre at the back post but the young Colombian was just past his defender.

Nabil El Zhar scored a double and Kevin-Prince Boateng found the scoresheet as well as Las Palmas hammered Granada 5-1 at Estadio Gran Canaria. The 2015 promoted side has now won two games in two after finishing 11th last season.

Deportivo Alaves and Sporting Gijon played to a 0-0 draw at Estadio Mendizorrotza in a match that featured just three combined shots on target.

MLS Snapshot: Portland Timbers 4-2 Seattle Sounders

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 6: Darlington Nagbe #6 of Portland Timbers lifts Diego Valeri #8 of Portland Timbers into the air after Valeri scored a goal during the first half of the game against the Columbus Crew at Providence Park on March 6, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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The match in 100 words or less: A rivalry is meant to be a two-way street, and it was just that, albeit in the most see-saw way possible. Portland scythed, carved, and sliced up the Seattle back line with fluid movement and set-pieces in the first half, working up a 4-0 lead, and then clung on for dear life in the second, ending up with a 4-2 win at Providence Park.

Three Four moments that mattered:

16′ – Just four minutes after a seemingly disastrous miss from Liam Ridgewell, the Timbers began quickly putting that in the rear-view mirror. Vytautas Andriuskevicius earned the opener as his towering header off a corner forced Stefan Frei to make a leaping save, but he could only tip it up into the crossbar and back down into the goal. The ball bounded back out, but the linesman made sure to flag that a goal had been scored, with replays showing the ball did clearly cross the line.

21′ – Fernando Adi doubled Portland’s lead from more handy work by Valeri. The Argentinian burst his way through defenders into the box and ripped off a shot. Frei made a solid save, but the rebound fell to Adi who held strong with the ball and finally stuck it into the back of the net from point-blank range. From there, the game was effectively over, and goals from Lucas Melano and Steven Taylor extended the lead further.

44′ – With the Timbers up 3-0 after a fabulous team goal finished off by Lucas Melano, they capped the first-half with yet another set-piece score. Ridgewell swung in a free-kick from the right, and Taylor contorted his body to meet the ball, redirecting a forceful header past Frei.

51′ – Just six minutes after the break, Seattle suddenly clawed themselves back into the game with a pair of goals. A shot from Andreas Ivanschitz forced an own-goal with a looping shot that smashed into the head of a Portland defender and past Jake Gleeson, and Jordan Morris followed that up minutes later when he met a long ball from Nicolas Lodiero with his head.

Man of the Match: Diego Valeri

Goalscorers: Andriuskevicius 16′, Adi 21′, Melano 29′, Taylor 44, Ivanschitz 47′, Morris 51′