2014 World Cup Team Preview: Ghana

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Getting to know… Ghana

The Black Stars, four-time continental champions, are one of the most successful teams in African history, with their quarterfinal appearance at the 2010 World Cup matching an the continent’s best finish in FIFA’s quadrennial showcase. Had it not been for a dramatic Luis Suárez hand ball and a penalty miss from Asamoah Gyan, the team would have gotten one step farther, yet in the United States, the nation of Abedi Pele, Samuel Kuffour, Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien is known for only one thing: Knocking the U.S. out of the last two World Cups.

Since their last win over the States in 2010, Ghana has been relatively humbled, finishing fourth at the last two African Cup of Nations tournaments. In World Cup qualifying, however, the Black Stars reasserted their place in Africa’s pecking order. The West African nation will be appearing at its third straight World Cup.

Record in qualifying

Drawn into a qualifying group with Zambia, Lesotho, and Sudan, Ghana lost only one of six games, putting up a +15 goal difference en route to Africa’s playoff round. Drawn against Egypt, Ghana delivered another blow to head coach Bob Bradley, using a 6-1 win in leg one to cruise past the Pharaohs, 7-3 over two legs.

What group are they in? 

From the Ghanaians’ point of view, the Group G’s only reprieve is the United States – a team Ghana’s proven it can beat. Against Germany and Portugal, however, the Black Stars will be heavy underdogs, even if the Seleccao presents a chance to qualify for another knockout round.

Game schedule:

16 June, 18:00, Natal – Ghana vs. United States

22 June, 16:00, Fortaleza – Germany vs. Ghana

26 June, 12:00, Brasilia – Portugal vs. Ghana

Star player: Asamoah Gyan

Ghana has no shortage of name talents, from Milan’s Essien and Sulley Muntari to fellow midfielders André Ayew, Kwadwo Asamoah and Kevin Prince-Boateng. The most consistent presence of the team’s name talents, however, is former Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan. Most famous for missing the 2010 penalty kick that would have put Ghana into the final four, the 28-year-old 39 goals in 78 international appearances makes him the one proven scoring threat in Appiah’s starting lineup.

Skilled, pacey, and intelligent, the Ghanaian captain has scored 100 goals for United Arab Emirates club Al Ain since moving to the Middle East three years ago. For his national team, the long-time lone striker is now being helped up top by Spartak Moscow’s Majeed Waris, whose speed may open up space for his veteran partner.

Manager: Kwesi Appiah

An assistant in 2012 and former coach of Ghana’s U-23 team, the former Black Stars defender took over as head coach in April 2012. Choosing freedom for his players over tactical nuance, the 53-year-old has implemented a basic 4-4-2 to leverage the virtues of his talented core. If Appiah doesn’t revert to a five-man midfield (as he did in a recent friendly against the Netherlands), players like Asamoah, Boateng and Christian Atsu will be given the room to pursuit their opportunities, something that will hopefully present goals for Gyan.

Secret weapon: Mohammed Rabiu

Asamoah, Ayew, Boateng, Essien, and Muntari may not be assured starting spots, but Rabiu, a 24-year-old who plays in Russia with Kuban Krasnodar, looks set to be Appiah’s destroyer. A member of the Ghana team that won the 2009 U-20 World Cup, Rabiu’s energy in front of the defense will be important in protecting the weakest part of the Black Stars’ team. Tall, lanky, and with only 16 games of international experience, the former Evian midfielder will anchor whatever midfield Appiah decides to build around him.

Prediction: Like the U.S., Ghana is capable of both making the knockout round or finishing at the bottom of its group. Given a back four where pursuit is often more prominent than prudence, it’s difficult to see the Black Stars claiming the two results they’ll need to make it out of Group G.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

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In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

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In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.