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African Cup returns to exotic Gabon, but with air of unease

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) With an air of unease hanging over the tournament, the African Cup of Nations returns to Gabon for the second time in five years.

Opposition parties in the oil-rich central African nation have stated their intention to use African soccer’s biggest show as an opportunity to express their grievances against Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who retained power in a tense election last August that led to about 100 deaths on the streets, according to opposition claims.

That gives African soccer organizers, who chose to go back to former co-host Gabon as a replacement for Libya, even more to contend with alongside shaky infrastructure and two largely untested new stadiums.

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Libreville, the capital city of palm tree-lined Atlantic Ocean beaches and French colonial villas, and Franceville, deep inland in the jungle and the last stop on the railway line that cuts across the country, staged games when Gabon co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea in 2012. Now, Gabon gets the 16-team, 23-day tournament all to itself, bringing in two new venues that have barely seen any kind of soccer before, let alone a top international championship involving European league superstars.

Oyem, a town in the far north surrounded by rubber plantations, will be home to defending champion Ivory Coast for the group stage. Hopefully for Manchester United defender Eric Bailly and teammates, they’ll be in one of only a few hotels listed with the luxury of hot water.

Port-Gentil, the southern center of Gabon’s oil industry, is the second new city. Both have stadiums that were being built right up to deadline and not many have set eyes on the finished, or possibly unfinished, products.

The African Cup always has vibrant color, fans painted head to toe and in an array of wacky outfits, and competing countries you’re unlikely to ever see at the World Cup, even when it’s expanded: Guinea-Bissau qualified this year, its first appearance at a major tournament and the first time it’s really come anywhere close to the big time.

But the African championship is also an event that flirts with calamity. Two years ago at the tournament in nearby Equatorial Guinea, there were brawls between players on the field and riots in the stands when security forces waded in among supporters wielding batons and an army helicopter hovered so dangerously low in the stadium that its rotors whipped up debris and scattered the spectators.

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This year, observers wonder how the Gabonese security forces will react if there are angry protests against Bongo, who succeeded his father as president and whose family has ruled Gabon since the 1960s.

In Africa, there are other problems to contend with, too: In 2012, Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan contracted malaria, luckily a mild strain, in Franceville. He recovered and played a couple of days later.

This is a soccer event like no other, and comes around more often than the others, with the Confederation of African Football still bucking the trend of other major tournaments and staging its showpiece every two years, not every four.

Among the title contenders over the next three weeks – kickoff is on Saturday and the final is on Feb. 5 – Ivory Coast is striving for the rare achievement of back-to-back African titles after the team finally ended a long drought two years ago. There are two significant absences for the Ivorians this time, though, with powerful midfielder Yaya Toure, its driving force last time, retired from international soccer and victorious coach Herve Renard now in charge of group opponent Morocco.

Algeria and Senegal produced eye-catching performances in qualifying, with those teams spearheaded by Premier League talents Riyad Mahrez of English champion Leicester and Sadio Mane of Liverpool, respectively. Ghana has lost two finals and three semifinals in the last five tournaments and will continue its increasingly desperate search for a long-awaited first title since 1982, and, it hopes, an end to its African Cup misery.

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Egypt, the record seven-time champion, is back after failing to qualify at all for the last three cups. The last time Egypt qualified it won a third straight title, but its story is one of the best reminders that kings, or Pharaohs in this case, can easily fall off their thrones in the tumultuous world of African soccer.

Similarly, paupers can become princes. Like Zambia in 2012, unexpectedly becoming champion in Libreville nearly 20 years after a plane crash in that city tragically wiped out its entire team.

This year, Guinea-Bissau will have second- and third-division players from Portugal and Romania when it takes on host Gabon and Germany-based star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the opening game.

Also, Uganda is back for the first time since losing the 1978 final. When Uganda last played at the African Cup, Pele had only just retired and Diego Maradona was a 17-year-old upstart.

Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

Ligue 1: Depay’s goal streak hits 5 games; Lyon reeling in Monaco

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MONACO (AP) Lyon won at Dijon 5-2 and moved within one point of second-place Monaco in the French league on Friday.

Lyon’s sixth straight league win kept them level on points with fourth-place Marseille.

The team finishing second qualifies automatically for next season’s Champions League, while the team in third goes into the playoffs. After this weekend, there will be four rounds remaining.

Memphis Depay has scored or created 12 of Lyon’s 16 last goals.

The Netherlands forward opened the scoring in the fourth minute with a close-range volley, and set up the fourth goal for winger Bertrand Traore in the 77th.

Depay almost scored another, just failing to reach right back Rafael‘s cross in the 50th. Midfielder Houssem Aouar followed up and his strike was turned into his own net by defender Valentin Rosier.

Lyon’s other goals came from forwards Nabil Fekir in the 53rd and Maxwell Cornet in the 82nd.


MONACO (AP) — After losing the French title last weekend, Monaco is in danger of throwing away second place after losing at Guingamp 3-1 on Saturday.

The defeat leaves Monaco just one point ahead of Lyon and Marseille as the three sides chase an automatic place in the Champions League with four games left.

Monaco was thrashed by champion Paris Saint-Germain 7-1 last Sunday and the defense leaked easily again, albeit with a little help from one of its defenders.

A makeshift Monaco fell behind midway through the first half after Brazilian defender Jemerson was given a red card for stopping a shot on the line. He was sent off and veteran forward Jimmy Briand netted from the penalty spot for mid-table Guingamp.

Monaco capitulated and trailed 3-0 after 47 minutes. Defender Almamy Toure replied in vain with a consolation goal midway through the second half.


Marseille crushed Lille 5-1 to join Lyon on 69 points. Lyon, which won at Dijon 5-2 on Friday for a sixth straight win, has a better goal difference.

Marseille also has the Europa League and plays the first leg of its semifinal at home to Austrian side Salzburg next Thursday. But Lyon has only Ligue 1 to think about.

Still, Marseille is also brimming with confidence these days, especially winger Florian Thauvin.

He scored twice against Lille to extend his career-best league tally to 19. Greece striker Kostas Mitroglou also netted twice, and forward Lucas Ocampos completed the rout against 19th-place Lille.

In other matches: Amiens won against Strasbourg 3-1; struggling Toulouse beat Angers 2-0, and last-place Metz drew at home to Caen 1-1.

PSG is at Bordeaux on Sunday. Also, Nice is at home to Montpellier, and Saint-Etienne takes on Troyes.

UEFA says Europa League trophy not damaged after being stolen

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NYON, Switzerland (AP) UEFA says the Europa League trophy was not damaged after being stolen in Mexico.

The silverware was at a promotional event in the central city of Leon when it was reported by authorities to have been taken from a vehicle.

The theft came ahead of the semifinals of Europe’s second-tier club competition.

UEFA says the “Europa League trophy was in Mexico for a partner event and got briefly stolen. It was quickly recovered and has suffered no damages.”

In the semifinal first legs next week, Arsenal plays Atletico Madrid and Marseille takes on Salzburg.

Serie A: Roma prep for Liverpool by beating SPAL; Benevento win at Milan

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

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SPAL 2013 0-3 Roma

A few hours after a reserves-heavy Liverpool side played last-place West Bromwich Albion to a 2-2 draw in the Premier League, Roma, the Reds’ UEFA Champions League semifinal foes beginning Tuesday, hammered 17th-place SPAL on the back of goals scored by Radja Nainggolan and Patrik Schick.

Roma shocked the world — and Barcelona — to reach the semifinals, but still have a battle on their hands to finish inside Serie A’s top-four and qualify for next season’s Champions League. Following Saturday’s victory, Eusebio Di Francesco’s side is three and four points clear of fourth- and fifth-place Lazio and Inter Milan, respectively, though both of the chasing sides play on Sunday.

AC Milan 0-1 Benevento

The 2017-18 season has treated AC Milan, who spent massively last summer, far worse than Roma. Following Sunday’s home defeat to first-year top-flight (and last-place) side Benevento, Gennaro Gattuso’s side sits sixth (final automatic Europa League place) and lead seventh-place Atalanta, who play on Sunday, by just two points.

Pietro Iemmello scored the game’s only goal in the 29th minute.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sassuolo 1-0 Fiorentina

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Cagliari vs. Bologna — 6:30 a.m. ET
Lazio vs. Sampdoria — 9 a.m. ET
Chievo vs. Inter Milan — 9 a.m. ET
Atalanta vs. Torino — 9 a.m. ET
Udinese vs. Crotone — 9 a.m. ET
Juventus vs. Napoli — 2:45 p.m. ET

Barcelona cruise past Sevilla, lift historic 4th straight Copa del Rey

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona became the first team in 85 years to win four straight Copa del Rey titles after blowing away Sevilla 5-0 in the final on Saturday.

Luis Suarez scored twice, and Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Philippe Coutinho also made the scoresheet for Barcelona’s record-extending 30th Copa triumph, and sixth in the last decade.

Sevilla was trying to win a sixth Copa and save a season which will end without any trophies and maybe not even a place in the Europa League next season.

The final took place at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the capital amid the ongoing political turmoil involving Catalonia’s bid for independence.

There were jeers by part of the Barcelona crowd when the national anthem was played, but the boos were largely subdued by the reaction of the numerous Sevilla fans in the crowd. Spain’s King Felipe VI smiled and saluted the fans after the anthem.

No other team had won four Copa titles in a row since Athletic Bilbao from 1930-33. The only other team to do it was Real Madrid from 1905-08.

Barcelona lost a chance to win the treble when it was eliminated by Roma in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but it is three points away from winning the Spanish league.