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Four goals: Another night to remember from Zlatan Ibrahimovic

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Consider the magnitude of star it takes to overshadow the huge collection of talent they’re accumulated at Paris Saint-Germain. We’re talking about one of the world’s best defenders (Thiago Silva), a world-class number nine (Edinson Cavani), a uniquely exciting attacker (Ezequiel Lavezzi) and a player that many have called the next Andrea Pirlo (Marco Verratti).

Imagine the type of talent that can put distract from all those stars, and you’ll come up with some version of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – a player whose combination of skill and gravitas overshadows one of the most expensive rosters ever assembled.

That squad won on the road in Champions League by five goals on Wednesday, a performance that would normal be triumphed as a rare show of excellence. Instead, after their captain’s four-goal performance, Zlatan will be the story coming out of Anderlecht. And he only needed 62 minutes to write it.

“Ibra” started his day in the 17th minute with one of the easiest goals you’ll ever see him score. A perfectly placed ball from Gregory Van der Wiel went through the six-yard box, between goalkeeper and defenders, and onto Ibrahimovic’s foot. The redirection proved the most mundane goal of Ibra’s day.

Five minutes later, Ibrahimovic slightly over-ran another ball from Van der Weil while attacking near-post. To compensate, he allowed the ball to run onto his trailing right foot. The Swedish international then hit a back heel that beat Thomas Kaminski – the type of shot that forced you to ask whether he was setting up for the back heel all along.

Ibra’s third goal came in the 36th minute and will be the one you’ll see over-and-over during the next 24 hours. With a right-footed shot first time from 28-yards out, Ibrahimovic flexes the back of Anderlecht’s net with a ball stuck as well as you’ll ever see:

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In the second half, after his team had found a fourth, Ibrahimovic finished with the most surgical finish of his night. Put behind the defense and into the right side of the penalty area, Ibra hit a bouncing ball from a sharp angle against the left post, the path of the rebound across goal sending his shot into the near-side netting.

Given the angle and where he hit the ball, that spot may have been Ibra’s only option. To the left, and it goes off the post and out. To the right, and it finds Kaminski’s hand. He not only hit it, but he did so with the same degree of intent he put behind his third goal.

Talk all you want about Messi or Ronaldo, Ibra’s attitude or persona, but there’s only one player in the world that consistently does things like this. And when you hear people fawn over him, comparing his play to artistry, they’re talking about nights like this, where Ibrahimovic not only finds one highlight reel goal but strings together three or four.

This isn’t luck or happenstance. This isn’t a guy asking ‘why not’ every time he tries something new. This is intent. This is skill. This is a man who expects to score when he hits a ball from a near-impossible angle, the reason why Ibra gives us three or four like this each year.

It’s also why we watch European soccer. It’s for performances like these. It’s for nights like tonight. It’s for the transcendent talents who, at any moment, remind you of what can be done with a ball – a lifetime’s worth of work coupled with the type of imagination that sees a clearance rolling out of the penalty area as a chance to swerve a shot into the upper-left hand corner.

Talk about Zlatan’s arrogance if you want, but when we see nights like this, anything else would be false modesty. There’s no arguing what this guy can do with a soccer ball. Or, in the case of his last two goals, what he does to a soccer ball.

Performances like these are what it’s all about.

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET