Preview: 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Group C

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Coming off their first African title, Zambia gets a fortunate group draw to start their title defense. A refactoring Nigerian team is the group’s next threat, with two teams who’ve failed to impact recent tournaments rounding out Group C.

Like Group B, there is a top-heavy nature to this group, but while a team like Congo DR provided a threat at the bottom of Ghana’s group, the underdogs in this group sit waiting for a favorite to slip. A mistake-free mini-tournament should see the top two through.

Group C kicks off on Monday.

GROUP C: Zambia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia

ZAMBIA

World rank: 39; CAF rank: 5; Best finish: Champions in 2012.

The Copper Bullets shocked the world in 2012, defeating tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire in the final to claim their first Cup of Nations. While that result sees Hervé Renard’s side carrying new expectations into South Africa, few are picking Zambia to make a run for a second title.

History: Though 2012 was the Copper Bullets’ first Cup victory, the team had made two previous appearances in the tournament final: 1974, 1994. Despite only limited success, Zambia have been consistent qualifiers for the competition, participating in 12 of the last 13 tournaments.

Players: Attacker Christopher Katongo (Henan Jianye, China) was player of the tournament last year. He’ll line up in support of 22-year-old Southampton striker Emmanuel Mayuka, one of two Copper Bullets playing in Europe’s big five leagues. The other, Stophira Sunzu (Reading, England), will anchor a defense featuring the team’s most-capped player, 35-year-old left back Joseph Musonda (Golden Arrows, South Africa). Isaac Chansa (Henan Jianye) will feature in midfield, while 21-year-old Chisamba Lungu (Ural Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia) is expected to get the call on the right side of Renard’s attack.

How they’ll play: Zambia’s lack of quality in midfield forces them to rely on the counter, something they proved adept at executing last year. It is, however, possible for them to be choked out of games, something that may explain their mediocre results since last year’s title.

Outlook: The Copper Bullets will need some breaks to replicate last year’s run, but making it out of group shouldn’t be a problem.

NIGERIA

World rank: 52; CAF rank: 9; Best finish: Champions in 1980 and 1994.

Internationally, Nigeria is still regarded as one of the Africa’s elites, a view that matches the pride and expectations of fans at home. But the luster is gone from a nation whose recent results fail to match their talent. The Super Eagles failed to qualify for Equatorial Guinea-Gabon and have not advanced from their World Cup group since their success in the 1990s.

History: Including their two titles, Nigeria has 13 top-three finishes — the most of any nation — but it’s been nearly 20 years since their last title. They haven’t made a tournament final in 13 years.

Players: After the disappointment of South Africa 2010, players like Peter Odemwingie, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, John Utaka and Obafemi Martins have been phased out of the team. The only players over 25 who are expected to start Nigeria’s first match are defender and captain Joseph Yobo (32, Fenerbahçe) as well as goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama (30, Maccabi Tel Aviv). Attackers Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow), Victor Moses (Chelsea), and Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow) average just over 22 years old, while 25-year-old John Obi-Mikel (Chelsea) is the old man in a midfield with Padova’s Nwankwo Obiorah and Real Betis’s Nosa Igiebor.

How they’ll play: Nigeria’s personnel has changed, but their play will largely be the same. Theirs is a stylish, flowing game that tends to work vertically as opposed to relying on possession. Particularly in their front three, the team has skill, pace, and potential, but despite the turnover in players, the question remains the same: Do they have a midfield to match?

Outlook: It’s an inexperienced squad but one that should be able to get out of the group on talent alone. Burkina Faso is capable while Ethopia’s stocking up. The Super Eagles’ inexperience is the risk.

BURKINA FASO

World rank: 92; CAF rank: 23; Best finish: Fourth place in 1998.

Having never qualified for a World Cup, Burkina Faso is the type of nation fans outside of Africa know little about. But with a number of players who play in prominent leagues, the Stallions are a more capable team than their lack of reputation suggests. The question is whether they can convert that talent, particularly in attack, to a team that can do more than merely keep up. Can Burkina Faso actually threaten anybody?

History: The team’s been a consistent qualifier for recent Cup of Nations, making eight of the last 10 editions of the tournament. Unfortunately they’ve only made it beyond the first round once: At home in 1998. Undone by their inability to score goals, the Stallions have been insignificant participants.

Players: Moumouni Dagano’s (Al-Sailiya, Qatar) 24 goals in 58 appearances make him Burkina Faso’s most-proven scoring threat, but left wing Jonathan Pitroipa is their most dangerous player. One of the main threats for Rennes in Ligue 1, the 26-year-old has been unable to find the same success for his national team (four goals in 34 appearances). Now’s the time for him to step up.

Marsielle’s Charles Kaboré plays at the base of a midfield purposing the more advanced Alain Traouré (Auxerre, France), with Lyon’s Bakary Koné the team’s best defender.

How they’ll play: A solid team that’s capable of containing opponents, Bukina Faso’s style typically lacks drive doing forward. The can play either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, both of which will lack drive from the midfield. It’s unclear how head coach Paul Put can solve that problem.

Outlook: This is a team that could take advantage of Nigeria’s inexperience, but not if the Super Eagles play to their potential. The Stallions are waiting for somebody to fall before breaking back through into the quarterfinals.

ETHIOPIA

World rank: 110; CAF rank: 31; Best finish: 1962 Champions.

It’s been 31 years since Ethiopia has qualified for a major tournament. To do so, the former Champions needed five goals over two qualifying legs, eventually advancing past Sudan on the away goals tiebreaker. At 31st in the region, they are this year’s lowest-ranked qualifier.

History: Ethiopia won the third Cup of Nations and qualified for each of the first seven tournaments. Since, the Walya Antelopes have only qualified twice and not since 1982. They haven’t advanced beyond group play since the year they won the title.

Players: Nineteen of the squad’s 23 players are domestic-based, with Minnesota-raised NASL forward and former U.S. U-level player Fuad Ibrahim one of the exceptions. He’s part of a concerted search for new Ethopian talent.

Defender Degu Debebe captains the team. He’s been capped 44 times and will be partnered in central defense by Saint George teammate Abebaw Butako. (Seven Saint George players are in the squad.)

Twnety-five year old Addis Hintsa (Dedebit, Ethipoia) holds down the midfield, with Egypt-based Saladin Said (Wadi Degla) leading the attack.

How they’ll play: Inconsistently. Doing forward, the Antelopes are capable of goals (as they showed against Sudan), but they tend to play on the counter while paradoxically leaving an inconsistent defense excessively exposed.

Outlook: The Ethiopians are ambitious, but their ambition is more likely to be rewarded in their quest to qualify for Brazil. They’ll need both breaks and luck to get out of this group.

SCHEDULE

Monday, Jan. 21, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Zambia versus Ethiopia
Monday, Jan. 21, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Nigeria versus Burkina Faso
Friday, Jan. 25, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Zambia versus Nigeria
Friday, Jan, 25, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Burkina Faso versus Ethiopia
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Burkina Faso versus Zambia
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Ethiopia versus Nigeria

Wild guess order of finish:

1. Zambia (7 pts.)
2. Nigeria (5 pts.)
3. Burkina Faso (2 pts.)
4. Ethiopia (1 pt.)

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.