Ivory Coast v Tunisia - 2013 Africa Cup of Nations: Group D

Cup of Nations: Cote d’Ivoire stay perfect with win over Tunisia

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Either Sabri Lamouchi was hoping to change things up or he was just trying to keep his squad fresh. Regardless, the Cote d’Ivoire coach got the result he sought, one which leaves his team within inches of the quarterfinals at the African Cup of Nations.

With an early goal from winger Gervinho, Les Elephants claimed a 21st minute lead. Last goals from Yaya Touré and Didier Ya Konan gave the Ivorians a 3-0 win and first place in Group D.

It was another Didier, however, who took early headlines. Cote d’Ivoire captain Didier Drogba was on the bench to start this game, and although he came on for the match’s final 23 minutes, the star striker’s unprecedented benching created news before kickoff. While decision was likely a fitness concern, it was still the first time the former Chelsea start had been dropped during his international career.

That wasn’t the only change Lamouchi made. Veteran defender Kolo Touré was left out, as was winger Max Gradel and attacking midfielder Ya Konan (whose late goal came as a substitute). Chieke Tioté, Romaric, Lacina Diarra, and Salomon Kalou got their first starts of the competition. Didier Zokora dropped from midfield into central defense while Yaya Touré moved into an attacking midfield role.

“It doesn’t matter who plays, who doesn’t play,” Kolo Touré said after Les Elephants’ victory. “We want to go back with the trophy.”

The changes produced an early energy, Les Elephants continuously trying to slip the ball behind the Tunisian defense for Gervinho and Kalou cutting in from wide. The tactic led to the team’s first goal when Gervinho caused a turnover, found Diarra in the middle of the penalty area, and then ran onto a backheeled pass before finishing in the top of the Tunisian net.

The game settled after the goal, each side playing out the next hour with few chances to score. Tunisia’s best chance came late in the second half when Saber Khelifa’s volley from near the penalty spot was redirected straight at goalkeeper Boubacar Barry.

Touré’s 87th minute goal finally sealed it for the Ivorians, with Ya Konan’s right-footed finish from 17 yards out giving Group D’s leaders a deceptively decisive result.

“Collectively that was one of our best games,” Salomon Kalou said after the match.

In Wednesday’s highly anticipated match with Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire may only need a draw to clinch Group D. They sit on six points and own head-to-head tiebreakers over both Tunisia and Togo. If Algeria fail to defeat Togo today, Les Elephants will have their group locked up before starting their final game, a just state of a team whom, while imperfect, have looked as good as any in this competition.

Tunisia find themselves in a tougher spot after their decisive loss. It’s unlikely goal difference will help them now, so ahead of a final group match with Togo, they will be hoping for a Sparrow Hawks result today against the Desert Foxes. Get it, and the Tunisians can advance with a victory over Togo. Without it, they may be at the mercy of tiebreakers. At best.

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.