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Preview: 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Group D

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The final group to kickoff at South Africa 2013 has the continent’s two top-rated teams, though there’s a clear favorite to finish first in group F. As always, Cote d’Ivoire was the pick going into Africa’s confederation championship, but with Algeria and Tunisia in their group, the perpetual picks have two capable North African hurdles ahead of a knockout round appearance.

Togo rounds out a quartet that’s been curiously labeled a group of death, one that begins play on Tuesday.

GROUP D: Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Algeria, Togo

COTE D’IVOIRE

World rank: 14; CAF rank: 1; Best finish: Champions in 1992.

They’re the favorite on name value alone, but oh, what a set of names. Les Elephants have the two best players in Africa, talent that makes them obvious favorites. Their results, however, have never matched their reputation, and although Sabri Lamouchi’s team is again touted by the casual fan to take home Africa’s championship, their often excessively casual play has left them title-less over the last two decades.

History: Egypt has seven titles. Ghana and Cameroon have four titles. Even Congo DR has won twice. How has Cote d’Ivoire only won one title in 28 previous editions of this tournament?

It’s not that they haven’t had success in the absolute sense. The Ivorians have finished in the top three seven times, but with three semifinal appearances in the last four tournaments, the Elephants have become Africa’s nearly men, each tournament representing their next chance to not break through.

Players: Sorry Robin van Persie, but Yaya Touré was the English Premier League’s best player last season. While this year he hasn’t replicated the dominant form he showed in 2011-12, he is still Africa’s best player. If he plays for Cote d’Ivoire like he did for Manchester City, Cote d’Ivoire will win this competition.

Then there’s Drogba. He’s 34, been in China for seven months, but Didier Drogba (Shanghai Shenhua) may still be one of the most dangerous players in the world. If he plays like he did in March through May (in Champions League), Cote d’Ivoire will win this competition. (Yes, there are a lot of ways the Ivorians win this competition.)

Then there’s Gervinho (Arsenal), Cheick Tioté (Newcastle), Siaka Tiéné (Paris Saint-Germain), Emmanuel Eboué (Galatasaray), Didier Zokora (Trabzonspor, Turkey), along with a host of other players that would help the Ivorians survive in most of the big European leagues. On paper, they are the best team in this tournament.

How they’ll play: This is a broken record. It comes up in almost every snapshot, and it speaks to the lack of cohesion in these teams. It also explains why, beyond Africa, talented teams like Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, and these Ivorians have had limited success in international competitions …

But the midfield will by the key for the Ivorians. Cote d’Ivoire has a great attack, solid defending, and excellent players in the middle, but the way that midfield plays is not enough to get the most out of Drogba, Gervinho, and Max Gradel (Saint Etienne) – the likely starters in Lamouchi’s 4-3-3.

That’s why this year might be different. Whereas in the past the big African teams have relied on the likes of John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien, and (lately) Alex Song to transcend their club roles and become more progressive players for their national teams, Yaya Touré — after years of being asked to do the same — has actually played and executed in more advanced positions for City. Now, instead of a team speculating a talented player can flip a switch for three weeks, Cote d’Ivoire has a basis to think this can actually work.

Outlook: This group won’t give the Ivorians any problem. If things go right, you’ll see steady improvement throughout there first two games (and cruise through the third), giving Les Elephants momentum and confidence they can carry into the final eight.

TUNISIA

World rank: 53; CAF rank: 10; Best finish: Champions in 2004.

Hindsight has painted Tunisia’s 2012 run as surprising, the Eagles of Carthage pushing Ghana in the round of eight before losing in extra time. The evaluation shows how overlooked the North Africans have become. Consistent qualifiers and a decent bet to make it our of most groups, the Tunisians have become too predictable to be interesting. As a result, they tend to get overlooked.

History: Tunisia has qualified for 11-straight tournaments, getting out of their group eight times. In that time they’ve made three semifinals, two finals, and won the tournament at home in 2004.

Players: Aymen Abdennour (Toulouse) is the base of the team, the 23-year-old central defender key to the Tunisian back line. Veteran Wissem Ben Yahia (Mersin İdmanyurdu, Turkey) will shield the defense, with Oussama Darragi (Sion) and 22-year-old Youssef Msakni (Kuwait SC) creating in support of the team’s only consistent scoring threat: Issam Jemâa (Kuwait SC).

How they’ll play: A 4-3-3 will allow Msakni, Jemaa and Saber Khelifa (Evian, France) to exhibit a skillful attack that instinctively plays on the counter but is capable of more. The team’s pressing can be problematic for a continental style that’s used to getting time on the ball while approaching the attacking half. That stylistic difference makes Tunisia a difficult matchup for most teams, a difference that’s capable of getting results that transcend their base talent level.

Outlook: This might be the year Tunisia doesn’t advance, which would be no fault of their own. With both Cote d’Ivoire and Algeria in their group, they’ll need to pull one mild upset to get through. It could happen in game one, a match with Algeria that both sides concede would decide the second team out of this group.

ALGERIA

World rank: 22; CAF rank: 2; Best finish: Champions in 1990.

After winning a fall 2009 playoff in Khartoum to advance to the World Cup past African champions Egypt, Algeria went into meltdown mode. They made the final four of Angola 2010 before imploding in the semis against the Pharoahs. At the World Cup, they were best known as the other team on the field during Landon Donovan’s goal.

After failing to qualify for Equatorial Guinea-Gabon in 2012, the Desert Foxes are back, with former Cote d’Ivoire head coach Vahid Halilhodžić trying to bring his heavy-handed stability to a team that was distracted by internal tensions.

History: Like Tunisia, Algeria has a consistent record of qualification, making 15 of the last 18 Cup of Nations. And like Tunisia, the only time they’ve taken home the trophy was when they hosted. That was one of only two times the Foxes have made the final.

Players: The Foxes have undergone a refactoring after their 2009 successes. Gone are players like Nadir Belhadj, Karim Matmour, Kader Ghezzal, Mourad Meghni, and Anthar Yahi – the core of Algeria’s previous team. Halilhodžić’s current team has nobody whose been capped more the 25 times (thanks in part to his omissions of Madjid Bougherra and Rafik Halliche).

Valencia attacker Sofiane Feghouli is the most dangerous man on the current team. He’ll be a problem for every left back he’s match up against this tournament. Veteran Marseille midfelder Foued Kadir will be tasked with finding him, while forward Islam Slimani (Belouizdad, Algeria) will need to take advantage of the chances Feghouli creates. Also expect contributions off the bench from Ryad Boudebouz (Sochaux, France).

At the back, Carl Medjani (Ajaccio, France), Djamel Mesbah (Milan), and Liassine Cadamuro (Real Sociedad) feature in one of the tournament’s better back lines, one that will be protected by Getafe’s Mehdi Lacen.

How they’ll play: Whereas before Algeria would shift between a 3-5-2 and 4-4-2, now the Halilhodžić has the team going between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, with more of the latter thanks to players like Feghouli, Boudebouz and El Arbi Soudani (Vitoria Guimaraes, Portugal). Like other North African teams, they’ve tended to excessive rely on counter attacking in recent years. If you play off the Algerians, you’ll rarely hurt.

Outlook: Most are picking them to get out of this group, but it’s a tossup between them and Tunisia. The order of games might end up deciding who goes through, with Cote d’Ivoire’s (lack of) third game incentives potentially giving one team an advantage.

TOGO

World rank: 110; CAF rank: 31; Best finish: Six group stage exits.

Their place in this group has led to many’s conclusion this is the group of death, but Togo’s reputation is based on the presence of one world class player. Beyond a potentially unstoppable striker, they aren’t much, and given that striker almost skipped the tournament, Didier Six is right to bemoan preparations disrupted by a compensation row.

History: Togo’s only qualified for seven tournaments (participating in six) and has never advanced beyond the group stage. With only one World Cup appearance (where they finished 30th), the Sparrow Hawks have no history of success at major tournaments.

Players: The one other player that has the talent to match the Ivorian duo is Emmanuel Adebayor (Tottenham). But until last week, it was unclear Togoan No. 9 was going to come to the tournament. At first it was reservations spurring from a 2010 Angolan rebel assault that kept the team out of that year’s championship. Then, it because a question over internal federation issues. Abedayor has been a consistently inconsistent presence for a team that depends on his talents.

Beyond Adebayor, it’s a pretty non-descript squad. Nine players are based in France, with Reims’ 34-year-old goalkeeper Kossi Agassa providing some needed experience. Defender Daré Nibombé (Boussu Dour, Belgium) is the team’s most-capped player with 67 appearances, while veteran Moustapha Salfiou is still a probable starter despite not having a club.

How they’ll play: Another 4-3-3 one that will both leave Emmanuel Adebayor isolated as well as stretch the defense enough to create room for his speed to exploit. His chances will be rare as Togo sees very little control of their matches.

Outlook: Some team has to finish last.

SCHEDULE

Tuesday, Jan. 22, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Cote d’Ivoire versus Togo
Tuesday, Jan. 22, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Tunisia versus Algeria
Saturday, Jan. 26, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Cote d’Ivoire versus Tunisia
Saturday, Jan, 26, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Algeria versus Togo
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Algeria versus Cote d’Ivoire
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Togo versus Tunisia

Wild guess order of finish:

1. Cote d’Ivoire (7 pts.)
2. Algeria (5 pts.)
3. Tunisia (4 pts.)
4. Togo (0 pts.)

PL Sunday preview: Man United-Spurs; Chelsea, Liverpool in action

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08: Christian Eriksen of Tottenham Hotspur reacts after missing a chance during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on August 8, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Four of the Premier League’s top six sides are in action on Sunday. Chelsea would go top of the PL with a win, while Tottenham Hotspur could climb as high as third, if Liverpool fail to go within a point of Arsenal for second. Manchester United, on the other hand, are falling away from the top-five pack with each passing week.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Chelsea’s eight-game winning streak is on the line when West Brom visit Stamford Bridge. Having won those eight games by a combined score of 22-2, Antonio Conte‘s side has hit its stride since the Italian manager switch to a three-man defense after losing to Arsenal on Sept. 24. Diego Costa is tied for the league lead in goals scored (11, alongisde Alexis Sanchez), and Eden Hazard (8 goals) looks much more like his 2014-15 self than the 2015-16 version on display last season. The last time West Brom won away to Chelsea in league action, the date was Sept. 30, 1978.

INJURIES: Chelsea — OUT: Oscar (illness), John Terry (leg), Kurt Zouma (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: David Luiz (knee) | West Brom — OUT: Saido Berahino (fitness)

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Manchester United vs. Tottenham — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After winning two in a row at Old Trafford, in 2012 and 2014, Tottenham are without a point (or a goal) in their last two trips to the Theater of Dreams — something Mauricio Pochettino‘s side will be looking to rectify and strengthen their case for a top-four finish this season. Spurs bounced back from their first defeat of the season, to Chelsea two weeks ago, with a 5-0 thumping of Swansea City, a game in which Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen each scored twice. As for United, who are three PL games without a win (all 1-1 draws), a return to the UEFA Champions League is quickly slipping away for Jose Mourinho’s side, now six points back of fifth-place Spurs, and nine back of third-and fourth-place Liverpool and Manchester City.

INJURIES: Man United — OUT: Chris Smalling (toe), Luke Shaw (undisclosed), James Wilson (knee surgery) | Tottenham — OUT: Vincent Janssen (ankle), Erik Lamela (hip)

Southampton vs. Middlesbrough — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com

With their Europa League campaign put to rest prematurely this week, it’s time for a strong reaction by Southampton with 16th-place Middlesbrough visiting St. Mary’s Stadium. Currently 12th in the PL, Saints have just one win three goals to show for their efforts in their last six games (never scoring multiple goals in a game during that time). On the other side, Boro are four games unbeaten away from home (all draws), against the likes of West Ham United, Arsenal, Man City and Leicester City, though much of Aitor Karanka‘s top attacking talent could be unavailable on Sunday.

INJURIES: Southampton — OUT: Matthew Targett (hamstringe); RETURNING: Dusan Tadic (nose) | Boro — QUESTIONABLE: Alvaro Negredo (hamstring), Gaston Ramirez (foot), Jordan Rhodes (groin), George Friend (knee)

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Liverpool vs. West Ham — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After throwing away a pair of two-goal leads away to Bournemouth last weekend, Liverpool could use a bounce-back of their own, otherwise they could be seven points off the PL’s top spot by weekend’s end. With wins over the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal already in the bag this season, the Reds’ two losses have come at the hands of Bournemouth and Burnley, two sides presently residing in the bottom half of the table. West Ham will visit Anfield as the 18th-place side in the PL with just two points from their last five league games, having dropped into the relegation zone following Swansea City’s victory over Sunderland on Saturday.

INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Philippe Coutinho (ankle), Daniel Sturridge (calf), Danny Ings (knee surgery), Sheyi Ojo (fitness), Joe Gomez (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: Sadio Mane (knock), Joel Matip (ankle) | West Ham — OUT:

PL roundup: Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top (for now)

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10: Andy King of Leicester City (C) celebrates scoring his sides second goal with his Leicester City team mates during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester City at the King Power Stadium on December 10, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in the Premier League…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Leicester City 4-2 Manchester CityFULL RECAP

Here’s one from the way-back (to last year) machine: Jamie Vardy‘s hat trick propelled Leicester to a surprise win over Manchester City at the King Power Stadium. The Foxes were 3-0 up after 20 minutes — two of the three goals Vardy’s handiwork; Andy King tallied Leicester’s second — and 4-0 up after 78 minutes, thanks to the completion of Vardy’s hat trick. Aleksandar Kolarov and Nolito grabbed consolation goals for City inside the final 10 minutes. With the defeat, City fail to move to within a point of league-leading Arsenal and Chelsea, and will finish the weekend in fifth if Tottenham Hotspur can knock off Manchester United on Sunday. Leicester, meanwhile, have risen to 14th place.

Arsenal 3-1 Stoke CityFULL RECAP

Arsenal found themselves a goal down, at home to Stoke, before the Gunners awoke to secure a 3-1 victory and overtake Chelsea for the PL’s top spot (Chelsea host West Bromwich Albion on Sunday). Theo Walcott brought Arsenal level just before halftime, Mesut Ozil made it 2-1 not long into the second half, and Alex Iwobi put the game away with Arsenal’s third in the 75th minute. The win moves Arsenal to 14 league games without a loss, having tasted defeat just once all season, on the opening day in August.

Hull City 3-3 Crystal PalaceFULL RECAP

Hull and Palace went back and forth, from the Tigers’ 1-0 lead after 27 minutes (Robert Snodgrass), to Palace’s 2-1 lead in the 70th minute (Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha), to Hull’s 3-2 lead just eight minutes later (Adama Diamonde and Jake Livermore), before finally settling on a 3-3 draw (Frazier Campbell) at the KCOM Stadium. Hull remain 19th in the league table, now level on points with 17th-place Swansea City.

Swansea City 3-0 SunderlandFULL RECAP

Swansea find themselves outside the relegation zone for the first time since Oct. 1, thanks to a resounding triumph over Sunderland at the Liberty Stadium. Gylfi Sigurdsson put Bob Bradley‘s Swans ahead with a penalty kick in the 51st minute, quickly followed by Fernando Llorente to make it 2-0, and the Spaniard once more in the 80th minute to round out the scoring. Swansea go from 20th to 17th with the result, while David Moyes and Sunderland now find themselves bottom of the league.

SWANSEA, WALES - DECEMBER 10: Bob Bradley, Manager of Swansea City (L) embraces Fernando Llorente of Swansea City (R) after he is subbed during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Sunderland at the Liberty Stadium on December 10, 2016 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Watford 3-2 EvertonFULL RECAP

Everton are winless in their last five league games (one win in their last 10) after coughing up an early lead and losing away to Watford. Romelu Lukaku fired Ronald Koeman‘s Toffees ahead in the 17th minute, but a brace from Stefano Okaka and Sebastian Prodl‘s first goal of the season made it 3-1 before the big Belgian could bag his second of the game. The win sees Watford climb all the way up to seventh in the league, leapfrogging five sides in doing so; one of the five, Everton, falls to ninth.

Burnley 3-2 BournemouthFULL RECAP

Jeff Hendrick scored himself a goal of the season candidate (WATCH HERE) and Stephen Ward scored his first goal of the season for Burnley, all before the clock told 16 minutes gone. Benik Afobe pulled Bournemouth back to 2-1 in first-half stoppage time, but George Boyd restored the two-goal lead in the 75th minute, which turned out to be the game-winner after Charlie Daniels made it 3-2 in second-half stoppage time. Burnley are 13th, five points clear of relegation, with Bournemouth now 11th, one point ahead.

Sunday’s PL schedule

Chelsea vs. West Brom — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com
Manchester United vs. Tottenham — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com
Southampton vs. Middlesbrough — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com
Liverpool vs. West Ham — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

VIDEO: Watch Vardy’s stunning hat trick as Leicester beat Man City

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Ah, there you are Jamie Vardy. Good to have you back, and the old Leicester City, too.

Vardy, 29, had not scored in his last 16 matches for Leicester in all competitions going in to this weekend…

On Saturday Vardy scored a hat trick to lead reigning Premier League champions Leicester to a 4-2 demolition of Manchester City which gives Claudio Ranieri‘s side some breathing space from the relegation zone.

[ MORE: Leicester hammer Man City ]

The Foxes — who had one just one of their last nine games in the PL leading up to this game — raced into a 4-0 lead (Leicester was 3-0 up inside the first 20 minutes) and although City scored twice late on the scoreline doesn’t reflect Leicester’s dominance against Pep Guardiola‘s side who were all over the place in defense.

Click play on the video above to watch Vardy’s hat trick as the English striker only had two goals all season going into this game. Now he has five, and his partnership with Riyad Mahrez is finally showing signs of reigniting this season.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live

The Vardy, and Leicester, we all fell in love with last season was back with a bang on Saturday. It took 15 weeks of the Premier League season.

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern back on top; Leipzig no longer unbeaten

Bayern's Robert Lewandowski celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Bayern Munich and VfL Wolfsburg at the Allianz Arena stadium in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
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The odds said a RB Leipzig hiccup was coming, and Bayern Munich took full advantage of its good fortune on Saturday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Bayern Munich 5-0 Wolfsburg

Thomas Muller finally scored his first goal of the Bundesliga season, the fourth marker in an out-and-out thumping of Wolfsburg (What’s become of them?!?). Robert Lewandowski netted a brace for the second-straight outing, while Arjen Robben and Douglas Costa also scored in the win.

Ingolstadt 1-0 RB Leipzig

The visitors were dominant, holding Ingolstadt to just 83 passes, but a 12th minute Roger goal was enough to send RB Leipzig to its first loss of the season. Their record is now level with Bayern at 10W-3D-1L, and Leipzig has scored 8 less goals than the table-topping Bavarians.

Koln 1-1 Borussia Dortmund

The hosts looked set to keep pace with the leaders via an Artjoms Rudnevs’ 28th minute goal, but Marco Reus netted a 90th minute equalizer to help BVB to its share of the spoils.

Elsewhere
Eintracht Frankfurt 0-0 Hoffenheim — Friday
Freiburg 1-0 Darmstadt — Nils Petersen with lone goal
Hamburg 1-0 Augsburg — Hosts win despite first half red card
Hertha Berlin 0-1 Werder Bremen — Max Kruse scores
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Mainz — 9:30 a.m. EDT Sunday
Schalke vs. Bayer Leverkusen — 11:30 a.m. EDT Sunday

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 14 10 3 1 34 9 25 6-2-0 4-1-1 33
 RB Leipzig 14 10 3 1 29 12 17 5-1-0 5-2-1 33
 Hertha BSC Berlin 14 8 3 3 22 14 8 6-0-1 2-3-2 27
 1899 Hoffenheim 14 6 8 0 25 14 11 4-3-0 2-5-0 26
 Eintracht Frankfurt 14 7 5 2 19 11 8 4-3-0 3-2-2 26
 Borussia Dortmund 14 7 4 3 32 16 16 5-2-0 2-2-3 25
 1. FC Köln 14 6 5 3 19 13 6 4-3-0 2-2-3 23
 SC Freiburg 14 6 1 7 18 25 -7 5-0-2 1-1-5 19
 FC Schalke 04 13 5 2 6 18 15 3 4-0-2 1-2-4 17
 Bayer Leverkusen 13 5 2 6 20 21 -1 3-2-2 2-0-4 17
 FSV Mainz 05 13 5 2 6 23 25 -2 3-1-2 2-1-4 17
 FC Augsburg 14 3 5 6 11 16 -5 1-3-3 2-2-3 14
 Werder Bremen 14 4 2 8 18 32 -14 3-0-4 1-2-4 14
 Mönchengladbach 13 3 4 6 13 22 -9 3-3-1 0-1-5 13
 VfL Wolfsburg 14 2 4 8 12 23 -11 0-2-5 2-2-3 10
 Hamburger SV 14 2 4 8 11 27 -16 1-2-4 1-2-4 10
 FC Ingolstadt 04 14 2 3 9 11 24 -13 1-2-4 1-1-5 9
 Darmstadt 14 2 2 10 11 27 -16 2-2-3 0-0-7 8

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