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Cup of Nations: Nigeria routs Mali to make AFCON final

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The match always had the potential for goals, but few would have predicted such a lopsided result. With four goals in a 35-minute span starting mid-first half, Nigeria qualified for their first Africa Cup on Nations final in 13 years, eliminating Mali 4-1.

In some ways the result was just as impressive as Sunday’s quarterfinal defeat of tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire. While the Malians are not held in the same regard as Les Elephants, the Super Eagles put on a more impressive show, leaving little doubt the project initiated by Stephen Keshi — one that left many of the team’s highest profile, most-capped players out — has come good.

Braga defender Uwa Echiejile opened the scoring in the 25th minute, heading come a cross from Victor Moses. Five minutes later, Dyanmo Kyiv striker Brown Ideye doubled Nigeria’s lead, with Spartak Moscow attacker Emmanuel Emenike giving the Super Eagles a 3-0 lead minutes before halftime. CSKA attacker Ahmed Musa’s goal on the hour completed the Nigerian onslaught, with Bordeaux forward Cheick Diarra’s late tally sparing Mali a sliver of indignity.

Nigeria will meet the winner of the day’s other semifinal, Burkina Faso-Ghana, Sunday in Johannesburg.

That final appearance will be the latest vindication of Keshi, who selected a young team for South Africa with the hopes of leaving the program’s baggage behind.

“There were a lot of problems in Nigeria because some of the big players, I did not want to take along in the team,” Keshi said of the response to his Cup of Nations selection. Players like Peter Odemwingie and Yakubu Aiyegbeni, veterans who have combined for 112 appearances and 30 international goals, were omitted from the squad, as were experienced players Obafemi Martins and Taye Taiwo.

The result is a team that may lack the attacking power of some of Nigeria’s previous major tournament squads, but it’s also a team that’s avoiding the pitfalls. After a disappointing 2010 World Cup and the failure to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations, Nigeria has yet to lose in their five games in South Africa, scoring 10 goals while allowing only four.

Now the Super Eagles have a chance to win their first African title since 1994, when their squad featured a 32-year-old Keshi as well as a young Jay Jay Okocha.

Superstars on show: Who needs to shine at Copa America Centenario?

Arsenal v Manchester City - Premier League
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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The Copa America Centenario opens in California on Friday, as the stars of North, Central and South America take center stage in the United States.

Well, most of them.

Neymar is out of the tournament thanks to an agreement between Barcelona and Brazil that will allow the superstar to play in August’s Olympics in Rio. And Barca teammate Luis Suarez is expected to miss the group stage for Uruguay while recovering from a hamstring injury.

[ MORE: Police free kidnapped Mexico striker ]

As usual the focus will be on Lionel Messi and Argentina, whose powerful roster has finished runners-up at the 2014 World Cup and three of the last four Copa America tournaments. Opening with Chile before matches against Bolivia and Panama, Argentina will be expected to make a deep run. Critics know Messi is one of the best players in recent memory, but his failure to land a title outside of the Olympics with a squad that often includes Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuain has haunted him, in a sense, at the international level.

Chile won’t be feeling much pressure after winning the 2015 Copa, albeit in controversial fashion that included whispers of home-cooking and a dirty incident from Gonzalo Jara that pained Uruguay physically and competitively. Still, Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) and Arturo Vidal (Bayern Munich) will put on a show on American soil in an attempt to repeat. And keep an eye out for Eduardo Vargas, whose production with Chile far exceeds what he’s done at clubs Hoffenheim, QPR, Valencia and Napoli.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Gonzalez wins Liga MX with Pachuca ]

Uruguay may be without Suarez for a while — nothing new given his suspension for biting at the World Cup — but Edinson Cavani will look to make amends for his wrongly-given red card in last year’s tournament. Abel Hernandez was dynamite in lifting Hull City back into the Premier League this season, while Uruguay boasts one of the world’s most complete backs in Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin.

EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS - MARCH 20: Andres Guardado of PSV in action during the Eredivisie match between PSV Eindhoven and Ajax Amsterdam held at Philips Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Eindhoven, Netherlands. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Guardado (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Andres Guardado of Mexico is criminally underrated and one of the best playmakers on the planet. The PSV man is joined on a solid El Tri roster that includes Bayer Leverkusen star striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.

The USMNT will have to contend with Colombia’s star men, highlighted by James Rodriguez, the Real Madrid forward and star of the 2014 World Cup. Carlos Bacca can also dominate stretches of action for Los Cafeteros.

Neymar is out for Brazil, but holy smoke that roster is terrific. Group B’s favorites will roll out Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho, Chelsea’s Willian, Zenit’s Hulk and Real Madrid’s Casemiro.

Other Premier League players on Copa America rosters

NORWICH, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Duncan Watmore (L) of Sunderland celebrates scoring his team's third goal with DeAndre Yedlin during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Sunderland at Carrow Road on April 16, 2016 in Norwich, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
Yedlin (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

Salomon Rondon (Venezuela / West Brom)
Geoff Cameron (USMNT / Stoke City)
DeAndre Yedlin (USMNT / Tottenham Hotspur)
David Ospina (Colombia / Arsenal)
Cristian Gamboa (Costa Rica / West Brom)
Bryan Oviedo (Costa Rica / Everton)
Joel Campbell (Costa Rica / Arsenal)
Juan Iturbe (Paraguay / Bournemouth)
Willian (Brazil / Chelsea)
Philippe Coutinho (Brazil / Liverpool)
Juan Carlos Paredes (Ecuador / Watford)
Antonio Valencia (Ecuador / Manchester United)
Enner Valencia (Ecuador / West Ham United)
Jefferson Montero (Ecuador / Swansea City)
Michael Hector (Jamaica / Chelsea)
Adrian Mariappa (Jamaica / Crystal Palace)
Wes Morgan (Jamaica / Leicester City)
Gaston Ramirez (Uruguay / Middlesbrough)
Cristhian Stuani (Uruguay / Middlesbrough)
Abel Hernandez (Uruguay / Hull City)
Sergio Romero (Argentina / Manchester United)
Ramiro Funes Mori (Argentina / Everton)
Marcos Rojo (Argentina / Manchester United)
Nicolas Otamendi (Argentina / Manchester City)
Sergio Aguero (Argentina / Manchester City)
Erik Lamela (Argentina / Tottenham Hotspur)
Alexis Sanchez (Chile / Arsenal)

Major League Soccer players on Copa America rosters

Kaka, Orlando City SC
Kaka

Kaka (Brazil / Orlando City)
Kendall Waston (Costa Rica / Vancouver Whitecaps)
Ronald Matarrita (Costa Rica / NYCFC)
Johan Venegas (Costa Rica / Montreal Impact)
Alvaro Saborio (Costa Rica / DC United)
Christian Bolanos (Costa Rica / Vancouver Whitecaps)
Tim Howard (USMNT / Colorado Rapids)
Matt Besler (USMNT / Sporting KC)
Graham Zusi (USMNT / Sporting KC)
Kyle Beckerman (USMNT / Real Salt Lake)
Michael Bradley (USMNT / Toronto FC)
Clint Dempsey (USMNT / Seattle Sounders)
Gyasi Zardes (USMNT / L.A. Galaxy)
Chris Wondolowski (USMNT / San Jose Earthquakes)
Jermaine Jones (USMNT / Colorado Rapids)
Darlington Nagbe (USMNT / Portland Timbers)
Steve Birnbaum (USMNT / DC United)
Nelson Valdez (Paraguay / Seattle Sounders)
Carlos Gruezo (Ecuador / FC Dallas)
Soni Mustivar (Haiti / Sporting KC)
Andre Blake (Jamaica / Philadelphia Union)
Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica /  New York Red Bulls)
Jermaine Taylor (Jamaica / Portland Timbers)
Je-Vaughn Waton (Jamaica / New England Revolution)
Giles Barnes (Jamaica / Houston Dynamo)

Cameron  of USA blocks out Duk of Bolivia (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

Simon Dawkins (Jamaica / San Jose Earthquakes)
Anibal Godoy (Panama / San Jose Earthquakes)
Blas Perez (Panama / Vancouver Whitecaps)
Alberto Quintero (Panama / San Jose Earthquakes)

NASL players on Copa America rosters
Yasmani Duk (Bolivia / New York Cosmos)
Pascal Millien (Haiti / Jacksonville Armada)
James Marcelin (Haiti / Carolina Railhawks)
Jean Marc Alexandre (Haiti / Fort Lauderdale Strikers)
Jerome Mechack (Haiti / Jacksonville Armada)

USL players on Copa America rosters
Ryan Thompson (Jamaica / Saint Louis FC)

Barcelona unveils “throwback” 2016-17 kits, sans sponsor

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Barcelona will go back to vertical stripes for the 2016-17 season, and La Liga’s champions unveiled the kits without a sponsor on the front.

Reminiscent of the last century’s kits, as well as 2006-07, Barca uses a lighter hue of blue than the dark color from last season’s outfit.

[ MORE: Kidnapped Pulido freed by police ]

The club had worn the logo of groups Qatar Airways, Qatar Foundation and Unicef in recent seasons, but has been working toward a new bumper sponsorship this year.

What do you think?

Rashford, Manchester United make new 4-year deal official

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 28:  Marcus Rashford of Manchester United celebrates scoring his opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on February 28, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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Marcus Rashford and Manchester United have put pen to paper on a new four-year deal for the breakout striker.

Fresh off scoring his first goal for England, the 18-year-old Rashford is locked into the Old Trafford club through 2020.

[ MORE: Carrick to stay? ]

Rashford scored 8 goals in 18 appearances since joining the First Team under now-fired manager Louis Van Gaal.

Executive vice chairman Ed Woodward urged patience with the youngster on ManUtd.com:

“Marcus is a naturally talented footballer with great potential. He has taken his chances well and has integrated into the first team very quickly. I am delighted that Marcus has signed a new contract, he is at the right club to continue his development. He is still very young and we need to be patient but he is developing in the right way and we believe he has a great future ahead of him.”

With Rashford and Martial, United has tremendous potential in attack at very young ages. Let’s see if the youngster continues to deliver on this early promise.

Omar Gonzalez, Pachuca win Liga MX final in stoppage time, down a man

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Victor Guzman used Pachuca’s first shot on target of the game to score the deciding goal in stoppage time, and Tuzos are champions of Liga MX after a 1-1 draw in Sunday’s second leg of the Liga MX Liguilla final versus Monterrey.

[ MORE: Kidnapped Pulido freed by police ]

Pachuca entered the game with a 1-0 lead, but found things level early before going down a man. But Guzman out-jumped USMNT left back Edgar Castillo for the title-winning goal, giving fellow U.S. back Omar Gonzalez his first Liga MX crown.

Here’s the goal:

Gonzalez was left out of Jurgen Klinsmann’s final 23-man roster for the Copa America Centenario, which begins Friday against Colombia. Castillo was, too, but was called into replace injured Timmy Chandler.

We doubt Gonzalez is thinking about that much right now. He’s more likely thinking about dancing some more: