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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.)

WATCH: Julian Green bags first-half hat trick for Bayern Munich

Julian Green, Bayern Munich (Photo credit: Bayern Munich / Twitter: @FCBayernEN)
Photo credit: Bayern Munich / Twitter: @FCBayernEN
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Julian Green celebrated his 21st birthday six short weeks ago, which is context that’s easy to forget when a player goes to the World Cup and scores a goal at the age of 19.

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Putting another way, he’s still extremely young and far from a finished footballing product. On Saturday, in the penultimate friendly of Bayern Munich’s preseason, the Tampa Bay-born German-American attacker bagged a first-half hat trick against Inter Milan.

From the deftest of touches on the first goal, to the outside-of-the-box power and precision (with his left foot) on the second, to the authoritative slam home on the third, Green might just be working his way into a regular substitute’s role behind star striker Robert Lewandowski this season.

Saturday marked the second exhibition in which Green scored a goal this preseason, having netted in Ancelotti’s first game in charge, against German fifth-division side SV Lippstadt, two weeks ago.

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 5-1 Colorado Rapids (video)

New York City FC's Frank Lampard reacts after scoring during the second half of an MLS soccer game against the Montreal Impact, in Montreal, Sunday, July 17, 2016. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): No David Villa? No problem, apparently. Playing without their star man — and 2016 Golden Boot leader (13 goals – yellow card accumulation) — New York City FC cruised to a 5-1 drubbing of the Colorado Rapids, who entered Saturday’s contest 15 games without a loss (last loss: April 9). Frank Lampard bagged the first hat trick in NYCFC history, giving the Chelsea legend 10 goals on the season (in just 11 games played). It’s just the fourth home win of the season for NYCFC, who have won more points (19) away from home than any other team in MLS this season. The victory increases NYCFC’s hold on the Eastern Conference’s top spot to five points above the New York Red Bulls. The Rapids, meanwhile, have left the door wide open for the LA Galaxy, winners of four straight, to go second in the Western Conference with a victory over the Seattle Sounders on Sunday.

[ MORE: Previewing the weekend in MLS ]

Three Four moments that mattered 

28′ — Lampard turns it home at the far post — Few, if any, of Lampard’s goals this season have been beauties, but he just keeps on scoring. Nothing else really matters, especially as NYCFC keep winning.

37′ — Azira sees a second yellow — There was little question about the card-worthiness of Michael Azira’s open-field take-down of Jack Harrison, and just like that, the Rapids found themselves a goal down, and a man down.

42′ — Taylor beats Howard for 2-0 — One chance, two chances, three chances. The Rapids seemed content on allowing the home side however many looks they needed to make it 2-0. Eventually, Tony Taylor finished the job.

81′ — Lampard finishes a counter, and the beat-down — So, that thing I said about the “quality” of Lampard’s goals this season. Scratch that thought.

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Man of the match: Frank Lampard

Goalscorers: Lampard (28′, 81′, 84′ – PK), Taylor (42′), Mendoza (75′), Gashi (90+2′)

WATCH: Zlatan scores on Man Utd debut; Rooney gets two as Man United win big

Manchester United, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Photo credit: Manchester United / Twitter: @ManUtd)
Photo credit: Manchester United / Twitter: @ManUtd
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is off and running for Manchester United.

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The big Swede was fully expected to immediately provide a Zlatan-sized impact from the outset of his time in the Premier League, but four minutes into his Man United tenure? It was unthinkably quick, even by Zlatan’s otherworldly standards and expectations. Good to see the scissor-kick make an appearance so far in advance of the PL season, which kicks off two weeks from today.

As for the rest of Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils, seeing Wayne Rooney bag a second-half brace, just three minutes between goals, could well be the most welcome sign of all for the red half of Manchester. His positional deployment on this day? The no. 10 role, just behind Zlatan.

Man United went on to defeat Galatasaray by the final score of 5-2.

New video arrives showing Lloris injured before Eder’s EURO goal

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Hugo Lloris of France dives in vain as Eder of Portugal scores the opening goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
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At the risk of tooting my own horn, count me among the few who thought Hugo Lloris might’ve done a bit better on Eder‘s EURO winning goal.

It wasn’t a howler. But the French goalkeeper, one of the best in the world, seemed a tad slow to explode toward the right post when Eder let rip with a new legendary Portuguese shot.

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It seems there’s good reason for this, as Lloris was injured just before the goal. Raphael Guerriero bent a gorgeous free kick off the cross bar, as you might remember, one that sent the goalkeeper clattering into the goal post.

This new video shows the Spurs goalkeeper favoring his right side or leg for the next minute, and that’s the leg he uses to drive his body low toward Eder’s bounding shot.

What do you think? Did it make a difference? Or was Eder’s shot plenty good on merit?