Egypt faces biggest challenge of World Cup qualification yet in Ghana

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Fate threw one final piece of adversity at Egypt and head coach Bob Bradley during the draw for the African World Cup qualification playoffs when it matched the Pharaohs against Ghana. Bradley’s bogey team from his time as the United States coach stands in his way once again, at the end of a qualification campaign fraught with stumbling blocks.

From revolutions to riots to massacres, Egypt’s road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup has been probably the most difficult in the world. If Bradley can carry his team that one final step, his status as national hero would climb again, nearly to the point of erecting another pyramid in his honor.

“In Egypt, everyone speaks about their World Cup dream, regardless of their political background,” Bradley said in a press conference on Thursday (via KingFut). “Qualification could indicate that the country is moving forward.”

The Pharaohs’ perfect record in the final round of qualification will be severely tested in the first leg in Kumasi, Ghana, on Tuesday (noon ET, beIN Sport). In 18 matches between the countries, Ghana has won eight, while the teams have drawn five times. The most recent matchup was a 3-0 friendly win for the Black Stars on Jan. 10.

However, the record in competitive fixtures has been much closer, with each team taking a win and drawing once in three Africa Cup of Nations games spanning from 1970 to 2010. In the 2010 final, Egypt took the trophy after a narrow 1-0 win, delivered in the 85th minute on Gedo’s boot.

“We studied Ghana well,” Bradley said. “We respect them, but not too much. We are a good team. … We must be smart in Kumasi. We need to play with the right mentality — intellectually, but with confidence.”

Logically, confidence should be in short supply, with Egypt having failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1990, while Ghana has been to the last two, reaching the quarterfinals in 2010. However, Egypt doesn’t seem to care much for the odds this World Cup cycle, running the table in six matches against Guinea, Mozambique and Zimbabwe before meeting Ghana.

The Black Stars will be without star midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng for at least the first leg, as he suffered a knee injury in club duty for Schalke. Meanwhile, CAF qualification leading scorers Mohamed Salah and Mohamed Aboutrika are set to start for Egypt.

Leading scorer Asamoah Gyan should also get the nod for Ghana. American fans will remember him as the player who knocked the U.S. out of the 2010 World Cup with an extra-time volley in the Round of 16.

While Ghana’s attack is what Bradley will remember, the other end of the field has been the Black Stars’ best asset in qualification, conceding just three goals in six group games. However, Jonathan Mensah and John Boye are both injured after starting the last four games together in defense. Boye started all six group games for Ghana.

After everything Egypt has overcome so far, the final hurdle should provide the most difficult on-field test in reaching Brazil. Considering the context, it seems the stars have aligned for a last piece of odds-defying Pharaoh magic that could unite the country in some of its most difficult days.

“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.