Confederations Cup Preview: Tahiti v. Nigeria

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The opening round of the Confederations Cup finishes today with the intriguing yet potentially lopsided clash between Nigeria and Tahiti.

Nigeria qualified for this summer’s quadrennial tournament by winning last winter’s Africa Cup of Nations, defeating Burkina Faso 1-0. The victory reignited hope among fans of the Super Eagles that their country may once again rise up as a legitimate power in world football.

Things got off to a rocky start for the West African nation last Friday when players refused to leave their hotel in Namibia following a World Cup Qualifying match. The lock-down was the result of a dispute concerning player bonuses, with the Nigerian Football Foundation offering the players $2,500 apiece but the players wanting double the amount.

The row was settled following the intervention of the country’s sports minister, Bolaji Abdullahi, who eased tensions between the cash-strapped Nigeria Football Foundation and the players. Without making the resolution public, the players agreed to board a flight from Namibia to Brazil on Saturday, leaving them only one day to train ahead of this afternoon’s match against Tahiti.

Despite the drama, Nigeria are still heavy favorites to overcome their French Polynesian opponents. The Super Eagles are unbeaten in 17 matches although they have won only once in their last four games since claiming the Africa Cup of Nations title. The Nigerians are led defensively by Celtic’s Efe Ambrose, who is determined not to be on the end of an upset by Tahiti. “Big shocks have happened before in these kind of tournaments and we don’t want to be the victims this time.”

The Super Eagles will be without Lazio midfielder Ogenyi Onazi, who was ruled out after suffering a knee injury in the encounter with Namibia, and will look to Chelsea’s Jon Obi Mikel to marshall both sides of the ball. Up top, Nigeria will seek out highly-touted 20 year old CSKA Moscow striker Ahmed Musa, who could use this tournament as a platform for his breakout.

Tahiti qualfiied for the Confederations Cup last June when the they shocked the continent by defeating New Calendonia 1-0 to claim their first Oceania Nations Cup. Despite those heroics, Tahiti have had a tough go of it of late with four straight losses in the third and final stage of Oceania region World Cup qualifiers, dashing their hopes of a return to Brazil next summer.

Tahiti’s hopes of securing victory against Nigeria can be summed up by a look at the team roster, which is made up mainly by amateurs who quietly ply their trade on French Polynesia’s main island. Only one player, uncapped former France Under 21 striker Marama Vahirua, plays football professionally (for Ligue 1’s Nancy). The rest of the squad is comprised of office workers, laborers, school teachers, salesman, delivery men and accountants.

Mikael Roche, Tahiti’s starting goalkeeper and a school teacher, talked about the rigors of going from a deskjob to training. “It is quite difficult, as we start each day very early and so have to wake up early, and yes, it is not physical work but still demanding,” Roche said. “I just have time to go home, collect my bag and go to the pitch so the timelines are quite short.”

If Tahiti are to challenge Nigeria, the goals will likely come from midfielder Lorenzo Tehau, his twin brother Alvin Tehau, their older brother Teaonui Tehau, or their cousin Jonathan Tehau. The quartet of Tehau’s have managed to score 15 of Tahiti’s 20 goals during their Oceania Nations Cup success.

The match kicks-off today at 3:00pm on ESPN in the United States and 8:00pm on BBC3 in the United Kingdom.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.