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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.

Barcelona tops Levante, ties club record with 28 unbeaten

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Jordi Alba of Barcelona celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his teammate Andres Iniesta during the La Liga match between Levante UD and FC Barcelona at Ciutat de Valencia on February 07, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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Sir Alex Ferguson described the 2010/11 Barcelona team as the best team he ever faced.

This year’s Barcelona side has matched them.

With a 2-0 victory over La Liga basement-dwellers Levante on an own-goal forced by Jordi Alba plus a late score from Luis Suarez, Barcelona has gone 28 matches unbeaten in all competitions, without a loss since a 2-1 defeat to Sevilla on October 28.

Manager Luis Enrique, though, is unmoved. “What matters to me are the team’s objectives,” said Enrique after the win. “These are nice numbers, if they help us win titles at the end of the season, fantastic. We are in good position, but there is still a lot left.”

The Levante victory marked Luis Enrique’s 100th game in charge of Barcelona.

That 2010/11 season, led by Pep Guardiola, Barcelona came a Copa del Rey finals loss to Real Madrid from a quadruple, winning the league, Champions League, and Supercopa de Espana. This time around, they’ve already secured the Supercopa, sit atop the league table by three points over Atletico Madrid and seven above Real Madrid, have yet to lose a game in the Champions League, and the second leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal against Valencia is a complete formality. What’s more, the numbers from this streak are eerily similar to that wildly successful squad five years ago.

That campaign, Lionel Messi scored 31 league goals and 53 overall. An injury sapped him of time in this go around, but Suarez and Neymar have picked up the slack. There has been just one league game in which all three of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez has been held scoreless this season, and to find it you have to travel all the way back to the second game of the year, a 1-0 win over Malaga that saw Thomas Vermaelen score the winner. Those three have combined for 48 league goals this year, more than every team in the Spanish top flight save Real Madrid.

Paris Saint-Germain has a similar streak going at the moment, currently unbeaten in league play throughout the entire season, but their 1-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League on November 3 means their streak across all competitions sits at 19 games.

Watch Live: Bournemouth vs Arsenal (Lineups & Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28: Mesut Ozil of Arsenal and Adam Smith of Bournemouth compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Emirates Stadium on December 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Arsenal is hoping to break its four-game winless streak as it travels to Vitality Stadium to take on Bournemouth, live on NBCSN at 8:30 a.m. ET or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

The Gunners have drawn three and lost one over its last four matches, leaving them unable to keep pace with Leicester City at the top of the table. With Leicester again winning this week and a matchup with the Foxes looming next time out for Arsenal, this match seems a must-win for Arsene Wenger and company if they wish to remain serious title contenders.

[ WATCH LIVE: Bournemouth vs Arsenal live online at NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Wenger has chosen to leave veteran defender Per Mertesacker on the bench in favor of Gabriel. Francis Coquelin also remains among the substitutes for the second straight match, meaning either Wenger prefers Mathieu Flamini in midfield, or Coquelin remains unfit for a full 90 minutes. Tomas Rosicky was injured last weekend and will be out up to three months, which could end his season.

Eddie Howe has named an unchanged starting lineup from their 2-1 away win at Crystal Palace last week. Winger Junior Stanislas is back on the bench after missing last week. In contrast to Arsenal, the Cherries are unbeaten in four and have won four of their last six, a stretch which has propelled them five points off the relegation zone and the same distance away from the top half of the table.

[ MORE: Premier League Sunday Preview ]

There are no new injury concerns for either side. Both have long-term absentees who are on the mend but still not close to a return. Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, and Santi Cazorla are all out for the Gunners, while Bournemouth duo Max Gradel and Callum Wilson are also sidelined for a while but could return before the end of the season.

LINEUPS

Bournemouth: Boruc; Smith, Francis, Cook, Daniels; Surman, Gosling; Ritchie, Arter, Pugh; Afobe.
Subs: Federici, Distin, Stanislas, O’Kane, Iturbe, King, Grabban.

Arsenal: Cech; Bellerin, Gabriel, Koscielny, Monreal; Flamini, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sánchez, Özil; Giroud.
Subs: Ospina, Gibbs, Mertesacker, Walcott, Campbell, Coquelin, Iwobi.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.