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Three 2014 World Cup dark horses across three continents

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There aren’t too many labels that can cause debate more than “dark horse.” In fact, an earlier post calling Bosnia & Herzegovina a World Cup dark hose was derided by several of you in our comments section.

After all, it’s difficult to pluck a squad from a major tournament that features the best of the best and not meet resistance (save labeling Iran or Australia a favorite for Brazil 2014). Still, let’s take a look at some nations with opportunities to surprise the world.

Japan – The Japanese have challenged themselves with immense competition over the past year and while it hasn’t been all sunshine, Samurai Blue will not be frightened by any opposition. That includes a Group C with the Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia.

Over the past year Japan has beaten Belgium and drew the Netherlands in Belgium, while defeating Ghana and Australia in Asia. Their Confederations Cup performance — aside from a 3-0 loss to hosts Brazil — proved they can score against anyone, with a 4-3 loss to Italy and a 2-1 defeat versus Mexico, games backed up by a 4-2 loss to Uruguay.

The players who get the lion’s shares of pub are Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) and Keisuke Honda  (CKSA Moscow), but Japan national teamers have found a foothold  in the Bundesliga; Nine Samurai Blue players are active in Germany’s top flight.

Certainly they’re a dark horse at best, but Alberto Zaccheroni has a 28-11-11 record as manager of the Japan side after plenty of time in Serie A with Milan, Inter and a brief spell at Juventus.

Japan is 2-1 all-time against the Ivory Coast, though the last matchup was a 2-0 loss. They won their only matchup against Greece in the 2005 Confederations Cup and are 0-1-1 against Colombia.

Ghana –  Yes, the Black Stars face what’s widely perceived as the Group of Death, but pressure hasn’t crippled them in previous competitions. Ghana showed up to its first World Cup in 2006 and promptly finished 13th before improving to 7th in 2010.

American fans are well aware that Ghana has beaten the Yanks in successive World Cups heading into their Group G opener in Brazil, but how many know the Black Stars have a 4-0 record all-time against the U.S. with a goal differential of 10-2.

German captain Per Mertesacker has hailed Ghanian star Kevin Prince-Boateng, who will have a family rivalry with half-brother Jerome Boateng. Germany has handled Ghana in both past meetings, 7-1. Portugal and Ghana have never met.

There are questions in net for Ghana — could Richard Kingson be back? — but there’s no lack of international class in attacking, as the team has options from the Premier League to the Bundesliga and beyond.

Anyone who watched the Black Stars simply throttle Egypt 7-3 on aggregate knows they play with flair and swagger, plus surviving Group G can net a nice path to the quarters as we’ve previously detailed. Are you betting against Ghana?

Bosnia and Herzegovina – Let’s finish with the aforementioned Golden Lillies, who sit at No. 21 in the FIFA rankings four months after reaching its peak at No. 13. Until 2010, the nation had never been higher than 44 in the world and were well below that number in years prior.

First, the negative: Competing in a group with Argentina, Iran and Nigeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina has little history with its competition and most of it isn’t good. They lost to Argentina 2-0 in a friendly on American soul on Nov. 18. Sergio Aguero scored both goals though most accounts say the Western Hemisphere powers were put to the test.

They’ve never squared off with Nigeria and haven’t faced Iran since 2009, but the Middle Eastern country boasts a nearly pristine 4-1-0 mark versus Bosnia.

On to the positive: it’s a veteran unit that features the four-most capped players in national history, including its two-highest goal scorers in Edin Dzeko and Zvjezdan Misimović. There’s good depth in the back and up top for Bosnia, who should reverse its Iranian struggles and cause loads of problems for Nigeria’s defense. They’ve got a stud goalkeeper is Asmer Begovic. That’s for certain.

If Bosnia and Herzegovina were to come out of Group F, they face a promising matchup with Group E (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras).

AEK Athens beats Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) AEK Athens defeated Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0 in an ill-tempered game on Sunday that saw 12 yellow cards and two dismissals.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win of season ]

Astrit Ajdarevic scored the only goal in the 34th minute with a free kick that deflected off Olympiakos defender Manuel da Costa.

Olympiakos’ athletic director Francois Modesto was sent to the stands for protesting about the lead-up to AEK’s goal. His team’s central defender Alberto Botia was dismissed after a second yellow card in the 75th for pulling an advancing AEK forward’s jersey.

Despite the defeat, its second of the season, Olympiakos has a 10-point cushion over second-place Panionios, which beat 10-man Iraklis 1-0.

PAOK, a 4-0 winner over Veria, remains in third place, one point ahead of Panathinaikos, which beat Asteras 5-0 on Saturday. AEK is joint fifth with Xanthi.

PSG drops points against Toulouse days after massive UCL win

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 14:  Julian Draxler of Paris Saint-Germain looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and FC Barcelona at Parc des Princes on February 14, 2017 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Just days after its massive (and somewhat unexpected) beatdown of Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain failed to close the gap on league leaders Monaco.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win ]

PSG settled for a 0-0 draw on Sunday at the Parc des Princes against eighth-place Toulouse, leaving the Parisian side three points behind Monaco through 26 rounds of action.

[ MORE: Bielsa returns to Ligue 1 with Lille ]

Despite holding the visitors to just three shots (one on target), Toulouse managed to contain a rampant PSG attack, which posted four goals midweek in their rout of the Blaugrana.

PSG’s first strong chance came in the 14th minute when Lucas Moura’s effort was saved in the bottom corner by goalkeeper Alban Lafont.

Meanwhile, Edinson Cavani may have had the game’s best opportunity to break the deadlock when the Uruguayan attacker struck the post from inside the penalty area.

Unai Emery’s group will be back in action on Feb. 26 when PSG travels to Dimitri Payet and Marseille.

Wenger worried over Sutton’s pitch heading Monday’s clash

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 16:  Pundits Paul Merson (4L) and Matt Le Tissier (2L) take part in a training session alongside Paul Doswell manager of Sutton United (L) and players during a Sutton United FA Cup media day on February 16, 2017 at the Borough Sports Ground in Sutton, Greater London. Sutton United are due to face Arsenal in the Emirates FA Cup Fifth round on 20 February.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The story of Monday’s encounter between Arsenal and fifth-division Sutton United will be whether the minnows can overcome the mighty Gunners.

[ MORE: Mourinho pleased with United’s “attitude” against Blackburn ]

However, Arsene Wenger already fears a bigger challenge within the game, one that concerns his players’ safety.

Sutton’s 5,000-seat Gander Green Lane features an artificial surface, which is largely uncommon for English and most European venues regardless of club standing.

“First of all the pitch. Secondly their enthusiasm. Thirdly that we are not ready mentally for a big fight and think subconsciously that it doesn’t matter,” Wenger said ahead of Monday’s FA Cup meeting in South London.

In preparation for their meeting with the U’s, Wenger had his side train on their own indoor artificial field on Friday.

“Look, ideally we would like to play on a normal pitch. Competition is as well to deal with what you face, and we’ll face an unusual pitch and we’ll have to deal with it,” he said.

“We practice inside [on Friday] because we have an artificial pitch. It’s not the same as it’s a dry pitch, and at Sutton I’ve heard that’s a wet pitch, they water it before the game. So it will be much quicker than what we have.”

Leipzig beats ‘Gladbach 2-1, cuts Bayern’s Bundesliga lead

Leipzig's scorer Willi Orban, center, and his teammates celebrate their side's 2nd goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between RB Leipzig and Hertha BSC Berlin in Leipzig, Germany, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
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BERLIN (AP) Leipzig held on for a 2-1 win at Borussia Moenchengladbach to cut Bayern Munich’s lead in the Bundesliga to five points on Sunday.

[ MORE: Messi rescues Barca, Pescara wins second Serie A match ]

Emil Forsberg scored one and set up another for the promoted side to end its two-game losing streak and stay on course for Champions League qualification with its 14th win of the season.

[ MORE: Bielsa makes Ligue 1 return, joins Lille as new manager ]

`Gladbach `keeper Yann Sommer pulled off a brilliant fingertip save to deny Marcel Sabitzer early on, but he was powerless to stop Forsberg from breaking the deadlock after half an hour played.

Sabitzer and Timo Werner played their way through the static `Gladbach defense and Werner laid the ball off for the Sweden midfielder to fire inside the bottom left corner.

The home side was given a lifeline when Marvin Compper brought down Lars Stindl and referee Felix Zwayer pointed to the spot, but Peter Gulacsi saved Thorgan Hazard‘s penalty before the break.

More poor defending allowed Werner grab the second 10 minutes after the break, firing inside the far post after Forsberg played him through.

Jannik Vestergaard pulled one back with a powerful header from a corner to set up an exciting finale. However, six minutes of injury time were not enough for an equalizer.

Leipzig had kicked off to a chorus of whistles from the home fans, who then mostly stayed silent till the 19th minute in protest against the visiting side. Huge banners in the north stand said “Traditional club since 1900” – an apparent protest against Leipzig, founded in 2009 when Austrian energy-drink billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz rebranded a fifth-tier team with his company’s livery before financing its steady promotion through the lower leagues.

COLOGNE 1, SCHALKE 1

Cologne stopped Schalke’s progress but the point was enough for the visiting side to overtake `Gladbach on goal difference in 10th.

Alessandro Schoepf got the visitors off to a flying start in the second minute with the help of the left post, and Leon Goretzka hit the post after half an hour with the home side still struggling to get into the game.

But Anthony Modeste equalized before the break with a fine strike inside the far post, and might even have scored again just minutes later, when his hesitation allowed Benedikt Hoewedes get back and clear.

Guido Burgstaller came closest to a winner for Schalke in the second half, his shot just wide of the far post after beating the goalkeeper.