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2017 Africa Cup of Nations: A look at Group A

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) A look at the teams and key players in Group A at the Africa Cup of Nations:


Gabon gets to stage the African Cup for the second time in five years, hoping that home advantage will help carry the team to at least the semifinals this time. As co-host in 2012, Gabon topped its group and did it by playing some compelling soccer. An agonizing loss in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals cut short the euphoria. Gabon has slipped down the world rankings since then and a couple of results last year, including a 4-1 hammering by Ivory Coast, signaled that this team may also struggle to get to the semifinals for the first time. But home crowds can be a powerful motivator and Gabon has Africa’s top tournament all to itself for the next three weeks as the sole host.

Key player: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

No doubt Gabon’s standout player, the 27-year-old Borussia Dortmund striker is the top scorer in Germany’s Bundesliga with 16 goals in 15 games this season. The burning question will be: Can his teammates provide Aubameyang with the help he needs?

Best result: Quarterfinals, 1996 and 2012.


Burkina Faso surprisingly made the 2013 final, narrowly losing to Nigeria. That team was led by the attacking duo of Aristide Bance and Jonathan Pitroipa, who are still regulars. But Burkina Faso has always had an up-and-down time at the African Cup and consistency has never been its strength. Two years after being within touching distance of the title, Burkina Faso was eliminated in the group stage at the last African Cup without winning a game.

Key player: Bertrand Traore

Although Bance and Pitroipa are important to Burkina Faso, maybe this tournament will be a coming-of-age for Chelsea’s Bertrand Traore. The 21-year-old creative midfielder, now on loan at Dutch club Ajax, first played for Burkina Faso’s national team at the age of 15, a sign of serious talent.

Best result: Runner-up, 2013.


Roger Milla’s hip-wiggling celebration and Cameroon players dancing their way into the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup – the first African team to do that – is now a very distant memory. Cameroon failed to even qualify for the Cup of Nations in 2012 and 2013 and left the last tournament, which was meant to be a glorious comeback, without winning a game. Cameroon also embarrassed itself at the last two World Cups, losing all six of its games. There were signs of a turnaround, with Cameroon unbeaten in competitive games last year, only for more problems to emerge in the lead-up to this tournament when eight players, including Premier League-based defenders Joel Matip and Allan Nyom, and striker Eric Maxim Choupo Moting, decided they didn’t want to play at the tournament. It doesn’t bode well.

Key player: Benjamin Moukandjo

The new captain has the task of uniting the Cameroon team. If he strikes up a profitable partnership with Vincent Aboubakar, Cameroon might start winning back some pride.

Best result: Winner, 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2002.


One of the stories of the tournament, even before a ball is kicked. Guinea-Bissau qualified for the African Cup for the first time ever, allowing players at clubs in the second division in Romania and third division in Portugal to brush shoulders with world-class stars like Aubameyang. Guinea Bissau, a little dot of a country on the far west coast of Africa, only had its first shot at qualifying for the African Cup in 1994.

Key player: The team

There are no stars in this team. Captain Bocundji Ca, a midfielder with second-tier French club Stade Riems, said it best in a recent interview with a local radio station: “We attack and defend together.”

Best result: Debut.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.