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: Can Man United, Liverpool keep pace?

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Highly unlikely to overcome 14- and 21-point deficits in the title race, respectively, Manchester United and Liverpool — along with the rest of the Premier League’s top-six — are merely in a race for second. West Bromwich Albion and Bournemouth — their opponents on Sunday, respectively — fear relegation.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man City untouchable; Chelsea, Arsenal win narrowly ]

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

Try telling Jose Mourinho, the only man in the PL still refusing to concede the title to Manchester City, that the title race is over. The performances have often been ugly and ground out until the final whistle — especially in the absence of Paul Pogba, who’ll once again be unavailable through suspension — but Mourinho’s men have won five of their last six (the only defeat coming last weekend, to Man City) as they head into Sunday’s annual trip to the Hawthorns, where they’ll face 19th-place West Brom. The Baggies haven’t won in their last 15 PL outings (eight draws), a woeful run which dates back to the second week of the 2017-18 season.

While United have been nearly impenetrable defensively (11 goals conceded in 17 games), a pair of costly errors — each committed by star striker Romelu Lukaku — cost the Red Devils dearly against City, as did their recurring inability (against the PL’s top teams) to control the game through possession and create scoring chances with consistency. The same struggles reared their ugly heads in a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth on Wednesday.

As poor as the results have been over the course of four months, West Brom can hang their hat on a decent defensive record — just 22 goals conceded in 17 games, which puts them squarely in the middle of the table. If Alan Pardew‘s side sets out to defend for 90 minutes, the Baggies might just get something out of Sunday’s clash. Pardew was quite pleased by the improvements he saw during Wednesday’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool, and he’s hoping for a repeat performance against United.

“We kept them very quiet and created on transition better moments, in the limited number that we had, than we did at Swansea,” he said. “That’s an improvement, but still an area to work on. We had some really strong performances — and if you get four or five ‘eights’ in your team that normally constitutes points.”

INJURIES: West Brom — OUT: Nacer Chadli (hip), Matt Phillips (hamstring), Craig Dawson (knee), James Morrison (achilles); RETURNING: Gareth Barry (thigh)| Man United — OUT: Paul Pogba (suspension), Eric Bailly (ankle), Marouane Fellaini (knee), Michael Carrick (heart)


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

Every time Liverpool take a step or two forward, they take a step or two right back to where they began. Case in point: back-to-back wins over Stoke City and Bright & Hove Albion, by a combined score of 8-1, which briefly vaulted them ahead of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in the race for the top-four; followed by back-to-back draws against bottom-half sides Everton and West Brom.

With that side, Jurgen Klopp‘s side is unbeaten in its last eight league games and boasts one of the league’s most potent attacking records (34 goals conceded in 17 games — third-most behind the two Manchester clubs).

Cherries boss Eddie Howe was encouraged by his side’s performances in that narrow loss to United, and the 40-year-old can sense that better days are on the near horizon.

“We’re disappointed because we’ve been beaten, but I’m really pleased with the performance,” he said. “I thought we were very good today and were very disciplined out of possession. We were also very good with the ball and created numerous chances. We really did establish ourselves in the game very early and there were some really good individual performances today. The team functioned very well.”

INJURIES: Bournemouth — OUT: Tyrone Mings (back), Brad Smith (hip), Adam Federici (knee) | Liverpool — OUT: Alberto Moreno (ankle), Adam Lallana (fitness), Joel Matip (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (back), Emre Can (suspensions); QUESTIONABLE: Daniel Sturridge (hamstring)

PL roundup: Chalk at the top, blowouts at the bottom

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Get caught up on all of Saturday’s Premier League fixtures…

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Manchester City 4-1 Tottenham HotspurFULL RECAP

What’s left to say about Man City at this point? Christmas is still nine days away, and their lead in the title race has already ballooned to 14 points. Pep Guardiola‘s side will have such an advantage that they’ll be able to choose between chasing the elusive unbeaten PL season, or resting key players with an eye toward winning the UEFA Champions League. Or, you know, he might just choose to do both, because he can.

Anyway, Ilkay Gudogan, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling (twice) scored the goals as City blew the doors off Tottenham. Christian Eriksen‘s consolation goal was little more than a 92nd-minute pity present.

Chelsea 1-0 SouthamptonFULL RECAP

Marcos Alonso scored a stunning free kick — what else? (WATCH HERE) — to give Chelsea a 1-0 victory over Southampton at Stamford Bridge. The Blues had ample opportunity to put the game to bed, but much like fellow top-four chasers Arsenal, couldn’t do so and were made to sweat all the way through the game’s final moments. The victory pulls Antonio Conte‘s side level with Manchester United for second in the PL table, though United don’t play until Sunday.

Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle UnitedFULL RECAP

Mesut Ozil scored one of the goals of the season (WATCH HERE), and it was all Arsenal needed to edge past Newcastle and leave Rafa Benitez‘s side sitting in the relegation zone another few days, at least. Thanks to points dropped by Tottenham and Burnley (yes, Burnley), Arsenal now sit fourth in the league table with only Liverpool capable of leapfrogging them this weekend.

Leicester City 0-3 Crystal PalaceFULL RECAP

The good times were really rolling for Leicester, who entered Saturday’s clash with Palace riding a five-game unbeaten streak (four straight wins) under new manager Claude Puel. Oh, how quickly fortunes can change in the PL. Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha had the visitors 2-0 up by halftime, and Bakary Sako added another goal during second-half stoppage time, just for good measure. Speaking of fortunes changing quickly, Palace now sit 14th in the league table, four places and two points clear of the relegation zone.

Roy Hodgson, miracle worker.

Watford 1-4 Huddersfield TownFULL RECAP

Huddersfield will stave off relegation quite comfortably if they can continue picking up lopsided wins every second or third game for the rest of the season, even if they’re sandwiched by blowout defeats. Saturday’s romp past Watford will surely go down as the most straightforward all season, as the Terriers went 2-0 up in 23 minutes, then went a man up after Troy Deeney was sent off in the 33rd. It was 3-0 after five second-half minutes, and 4-0 with more than 20 minutes still to play. Back up to 11th, David Wagner‘s side is six points clear of relegation just one game shy of the halfway mark.

Stoke City 0-3 West Ham UnitedFULL RECAP

Marko Arnautovic haunted his former club, Stoke City, as he scored a goal and was a constant threat throughout West Ham’s 3-0 victory at the bet365 Stadium. That makes three games without a loss, including two wins, for the Hammers under new manager David Moyes. Like Palace, they are also now two points clear of the relegation zone.

Brighton & Hove Albion 0-0 BurnleyFULL RECAP

Burnely, who began the weekend level with Tottenham and Liverpool (and ahead of Arsenal) for fourth place, dropped points for the first time in three games. Brighton, meanwhile, haven’t won in their last seven PL games and have slowly but surely slid back to the relegation-fighting pack.

Sunday’s PL schedule

West Bromwich Albion vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET
Bournemouth vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET

World champs! Ronaldo goal gives Madrid a 3rd CWC title

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo scored from a free-kick to help Real Madrid claim its third Club World Cup title after beating Brazilian team Gremio 1-0 Saturday.

The Ballon d’Or winner fired his right-footed shot between two players in Gremio’s defensive wall, leaving goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe no hope of reaching the ball before it bounced inside the post in the 53rd minute.

Madrid defended the title it won last season as it collected its fifth trophy of 2017, along with the Champions League, Spanish league, European Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup.

Ronaldo celebrated the goal by rushing to Madrid’s dugout where he was embraced by his teammates. The goal increased Ronaldo’s record to seven goals in the competition. He also scored in Madrid’s 2-1 comeback win over Al Jazira in the semifinals.

“What am I going to say? The numbers speak for themselves. I am very happy. The team played fantastically well and it has won another title,” Ronaldo said. “We played a very good game and deserved the victory.”

Madrid equaled Barcelona’s record of three titles for the short knockout tournament between the champions of FIFA’s six continental confederations and the host nation’s league winner.

European clubs have won 10 of the last 11 Club World Cups, with only Brazil’s Corinthians interrupting that streak in 2012 when it defeated Chelsea.

Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane played the same starting 11 from last season’s Champions League final in June, when Madrid crushed Juventus 4-1 – led by Ronaldo’s double.

The European champions outclassed Gremio throughout the match, but the closest it got to scoring in the first half was Dani Carvajal’s goal-bound volley in the 20th that was cleared by Pedro Geromel.

While Gremio had to scramble on several occasions to stop Madrid inside its own area, the closest the South American champions came at the other end was a free-kick by Edilson that swerved onto the top netting near the half-hour mark.

Geromel had tried to set the tone early on with a hard tackle that left Ronaldo writhing in pain, and hoping for a booking that never came.

Ronaldo had a poor first half. He twice erred in short passes with his back heel that failed to reach his teammates, and he squandered a good opportunity when he took too long to shoot when a loose ball fell to him close to the net.

All that changed after the interval. Ronaldo baited Jailson into fouling him outside the area with some fancy dribbling, setting up his winner.

Ronaldo thought he had another goal moments later, but Karim Benzema was ruled offside before he passed the ball back to Ronaldo.

Marcelo Grohe kept his side in the game by pushing Luka Modric’s shot onto his post and denied Ronaldo a second goal, but Gremio never mounted a serious response to get the equalizer.

Bundesliga wrap: Pulisic’s late winner sends BVB 3rd (video)

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While Bayern Munich continue to run away with their sixth straight Bundesliga title, the royal rumble over who’ll finish second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth — seven sides are currently separated by four points from second to eighth — rages on.

[ MORE: Man City make it 16 straight wins | Three studs, three duds ]

Stuttgart 0-1 Bayern Munich

You’ll quickly notice an emerging theme from Saturday’s games: late, result-altering goals.

Bayern dominated every phase of play the way they usually do, but were made to wait 79 minutes for a breakthrough. It was beginning to look as if their lead might shrink to seven points this weekend, but Thomas Mueller was more than happy to play the part of hero.

There was further heartbreak for Stuttgart, who then had a penalty kick saved by Lars Ulreich in the 93rd minute.

Borussia Dortmund 2-1 Hoffenheim

Dortmund have won back-to-back league games, for the first time since September, since firing manager Peter Bosz last week, and this one came courtesy of a certain, well-known American teenager.

Mark Uth put Hoffenheim ahead in the 21st minute, and Dortmund appeared to be headed for their first loss under new boss Peter Stoger. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang brought the home side back to level terms in the 63rd minute, but again, it seemed for the longest time that it wouldn’t be enough.

Then came the 89th minute, time for Christian Pulisic to shine. The presence of mind to flick the ball over the goalkeeper with his first touch, the control to drop the ball exactly where he wanted it on the other side, the quick feet to maneuver his way around the ‘keeper. The euphoric feeling as he slams the ball into an empty net.

Eintracht Frankfurt 2-2 Schalke

Schalke are making something of a routine out of falling behind by multiple goals, only to roar back to life and rescue a point in the game’s dying moments. First, there was the comeback from 4-0 against Dortmund. Today, the hill to climb was halved in size, but the point won is no less significant.

After falling 1-0 behind in the 1st minute and 2-0 behind in the 64th, Domenico Tedesco’s side got goals from Breel Embolo in the 81st minute and Naldo — scorer of the final goal in that 4-4 thriller — in the 94th.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away Pts
 Bayern Munich 17 13 2 2 37 11 26 7-1-0 6-1-2 41
 FC Schalke 04 17 8 6 3 28 21 7 5-3-1 3-3-2 30
 Borussia Dortmund 17 8 4 5 39 24 15 4-1-3 4-3-2 28
 RB Leipzig 16 8 4 4 25 22 3 5-2-0 3-2-4 28
 Moenchengladbach 17 8 4 5 27 28 -1 5-2-2 3-2-3 28
 Bayer Leverkusen 16 7 6 3 30 19 11 4-4-0 3-2-3 27
 1899 Hoffenheim 17 7 5 5 27 22 5 5-3-1 2-2-4 26
 Eintracht Frankfurt 17 7 5 5 20 18 2 2-2-4 5-3-1 26

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Augsburg 3-3 Freiburg
Werder Bremen 2-2 Mainz
Cologne 1-0 Wolfsburg

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hannover vs. Bayern Leverkusen — 9:30 a.m. ET
RB Leipzig vs. Hertha Berlin — 12 p.m. ET