World Cup team preview: Ivory Coast

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Getting to know…Ivory Coast: Possibly Africa’s strongest contender this year, Les Elephants have a strong squad but surprisingly a weak history as a soccer nation as far as results go.

The Ivory Coast has never escaped from the group stage of the World Cup, with this year being just their third go at the competition.  In addition, they’ve been relative newcomers on the African stage, with just one previous win in the African Cup of Nations (1992) and only in the past four competitions have they put together a string of deep runs.

However, if there’s one knock on the Ivorian team, it’s that years of building from the ground up has seen it run with a core group of players for years now, and that core is aging. The Toure brothers Kolo and Yaya are 33 and 31 respectively, and while the younger of the two seems to just be peaking now, he too may not have many years left on the international stage.

But there is also relief coming.  Wilfried Bony looks poised to take 36-year-old Didier Drogba’s place once the ageless wonder finally calls it quits, with Lacina Traore there to add another young attacking threat as well.  While he’s often a red card waiting to happen, midfield enforcer Chieck Tiote is there to help Yaya Toure if his legs do indeed tire.

It’s a strong squad, both literally and figuratively, and the typically African style of play could take them to new heights in Brazil.

Record in qualifying: The Ivorians dominated its CAF qualification group of Morocco, Tanzania, and Gambia, going undefeated throughout group play with four wins and two draws.  In the knockout round they drew Senegal, and a 3-1 home victory in the first leg gave them room to work with, and they put Senegal down with a 1-1 draw in the second leg. Salomon Kalou finished the competition with five goals, one behind the leading tally of six.

A look at Group C: Ivory Coast could be Africa’s strongest squad, but they also have the best chance to advance for another reason: their group is, at first glance, soft.  It’s not “easy” as there are no easy groups once you get to the big show, but is doesn’t seem to be powerful.  Colombia is facing a defensive crisis, Greece possibly overperformed during UEFA qualification, and Japan has a few top talents but as a team isn’t exactly a contender.

The Elephants have their own issues to deal with, but they look poised for the knockout round should they capitalize on their less challenging group.

Game schedule:

14 June, 21:00 ET, Recife: Ivory Coast vs. Japan
19 June, 12:00 ET, Brasilia: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast
24 June, 16:00 ET, Fortaleza: Greece vs. Ivory Coast

source: Getty Images
Yaya Toure may now be the Ivory Coast’s best player, but it’s impossible to forget about Didier Drogba and his storied career.

Star player: Yaya Toure

Fresh off winning the Premier League title, Manchester City’s Yaya Toure is looking now to lead his country to success as well.  With Didier Drogba likely on the final legs of his international career, the 36-year-old has shown his age this past year at Galatasaray, and it’s Toure’s time to assert his dominance in the midfield.

He’s known for his midfield presence, his incredible precision, and his free kicks, but there’s no doubt that Toure can score goals.  He has a cannon of a right foot, and with 20 goals for City last season, Toure will look to add to Drogba and Bony’s production up front.  With Toure giving defenders yet another body to think about, this attack is dangerous if it fulfills its potential.

Manager: Sabri Lamouchi

French-born and of Tunisian descent, the Ivory Coast position is Lamouchi’s first managerial job after a successful European career came to an end in 2009.  Lamouchi spent time as a player at Monaco, Inter, and Marseille before finishing up in the Qatari league.  He also earned 12 caps for the French national team.

The 42-year-old was appointed just a week before World Cup qualifying began in 2012, but assimilated well into the fold and kept his country from faltering as the continent’s number 1 seed. It was a curious appointment at the time, considering his predecessor Francois Zahoui had just led the Ivory Coast to the finals of the African Cup of Nations, losing to Zambia.  Discussions began to keep Zahoui, the first and only Ivorian to ever coach the team, at the helm but those negotiations broke down and Lamouchi was brought in.

Lamouchi has admitted the hardest part of his job at the moment is taking a squad of players all at completely different fitness levels after the club season and getting them to work together while also leveling out their fitness.  However, his

Secret Weapon: Experience

Experience is often used as a euphemism for “age” and in this case that’s not totally untrue, but it’s impossible to ignore the international careers of many in the squad.  Defenders Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora both have over 100 caps, as does Didier Drogba up front, but those aren’t the only experienced members.

Gervinho and Salomon Kalou both have over 50 caps and are both 27 and 28 respectively, and both are coming off positive club seasons – Gervinho in particular.  Cheik Tiote, Sol Bamba, and Seydou Doumbia all have World Cup experience and are under the age of 30.  This is a team that has been here before, and that should absolutely help them overcome a few weaknesses.

Prediction: Given the opportunity of a softer group, the Ivorians take advantage.  Signs point to a letdown from Greece, and that should allow Côte d’Ivoire to leapfrog and earn their first-ever knockout round berth.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as do Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; while Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone

VIDEO: Reus scores stunning winner for Dortmund

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BERLIN (AP) Marco Reus scored his first Bundesliga goal of the season to give Borussia Dortmund a 1-0 win at his former team Borussia Moenchengladbach on Sunday.

Reus, Andre Schuerrle and Mario Goetze started for the first time together for Dortmund, and the three Germany teammates were all involved in the 32nd-minute goal.

Goetze played the ball to Schuerrle, who crossed for Reus on the right. Reus looked up and lifted the ball over ‘Gladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer to score off the underside of the crossbar.

“It was a good goal. I think he wanted to do that,” Sommer said.

Reus, who returned from a serious knee injury last weekend against Hamburger SV, said he wanted to play the ball further to the left “but the important thing is it went in.”

Goalkeeper Roman Buerki was man of the match for producing a string of saves to deny the home side what would have been a deserved equalizer.

Dortmund moved second, 19 points behind Bayern Munich, while ‘Gladbach stayed 10th after its fourth consecutive defeat without scoring.

Dortmund forward Michy Batshuayi failed to score for the first time in four games since his deadline-day switch from Chelsea, though he wasn’t helped by the poor condition of the pitch. Some players lost their footing as the grass gave way.