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African Cup of Nations: Preview of Group C

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) A look at the teams, key players and coaches in Group C at the African Cup of Nations:

[ MORE: AFCON 2017 coverage ]

IVORY COAST

The defending champions are without a couple of big names from two years ago, none bigger than former captain Yaya Toure, who has retired from international soccer. Also, coach Herve Renard, who won with Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015, is now in charge of Morocco. Those two absences mean the Ivorians are not outright favorites like they were last tournament, but it’s still a very good team and a strong contender.

KEY PLAYER: Wilfried Zaha

The 24-year-old Zaha represents the new generation and although he’s only made two appearances for the national team, he’s had a major impact. He set up a goal on debut and scored in his second game, a 3-0 win over Uganda this week. The winger is a former England youth international who switched allegiance back to his country of birth late last year and was immediately called up by Ivory Coast.

COACH: Michel Dussuyer

Dussuyer had the tough task of taking over from Renard, the popular coach who led Ivory Coast to its first continental title in 23 years. Dussuyer’s Ivory Coast was subdued in qualifying and the Frenchman will have to deal with the retirements of the experienced Toure brothers Yaya and Kolo. He still has a large amount of talent to call on.

BEST RESULT: Winner, 1992 and 2015.

CONGO

A big surprise at the last African Cup of Nations when it finished third. Congo was once a power in African soccer with two titles in the 1960s and 1970s, but the team fell on hard times. It’s back now and the 2017 squad has a strong contingent of players in top European leagues. Congo, with unmistakable sky blue shirts and diagonal red stripes, will sorely miss injured Everton winger Yannick Bolassie, though, its most creative player.

KEY PLAYER: Dieudonne Mbokani

Without Bolassie, there’s more pressure on the center forward to ensure Congo scores goals. Mbokani is his country’s top scorer.

COACH: Florent Ibenge

Ibenge is a rarity, a black African coach taking charge of a national team. He’s one of only four black coaches at Africa’s 16-team tournament. Ibenge won praise for the way he led Congo at the African Cup two years ago and coached the country to triumph at last year’s African Nations Championship, the continent’s tournament for home-based players.

BEST RESULT: Winner, 1968 and 1974 (as Zaire).

MOROCCO

Morocco’s hopes took a big hit when midfielders Younes Belhanda, Oussama Tannane and Nordin Amrabat, and now this week forward Sofiane Boufal, were all ruled out with injury, stripping the squad of many of its top players. That seriously reduced its chances of going far, with Morocco struggling at recent African Cups anyway. Not only has Morocco not won a title since 1976, it hasn’t got out of the group stage in its last four African Cups.

KEY PLAYERS: Mehdi Benatia and Nabil Dirar

In the absence of so many stars, it’s now up to Juventus defender Benatia and Monaco midfielder Dirar to hold the team together.

COACH: Herve Renard

Morocco’s biggest asset is its coach. The charismatic Frenchman has had the golden touch at the African Cup recently, taking Zambia to a shock triumph in 2012 and ending Ivory Coast’s long drought to win two out of the last three titles. Renard is bidding to become the first coach in the history of the tournament to win three titles with different teams.

BEST RESULT: Winner, 1976.

TOGO

Togo is expected to struggle at this tournament, even with striker Emmanuel Adebayor back in the squad. Like Morocco, its one saving grace could be its coach, Claude le Roy. He has managed in Africa since 1985, taken teams to eight African Cups, and has reached the quarterfinals seven times.

KEY PLAYER: Emmanuel Adebayor

Adebayor so often represents Togo’s hopes. When he is playing poorly, or arguing with coaches, Togo often loses. When the former Arsenal and Manchester City striker is on form, Togo is a much better, much happier team.

COACH: Claude le Roy

Le Roy has acquired the nickname “White Wizard” in his 30 years managing African teams. Unmistakable with his flowing blonde hair and spectacles, he has a habit of working wonders with less-fancied teams, as he did to take Republic of Congo to the quarterfinals two years ago. Togo will need all of his wisdom.

BEST RESULT: Quarterfinals, 2013.

Electricity restored at Maracana after some late bills paid

This Feb. 2, 2017 shows Maracana stadium with a dry field in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stadium operators, the Rio state government, and Olympic organizers have fought over $1 million in unpaid electricity bills and management of the venue. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio’s electricity utility has turned the power back on at the famous Maracana stadium after it was shut off for almost a month in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid bills.

The utility on Thursday said power had been restored after the stadium operator paid 1.3 million reals ($430,000) in late bills from November through January. It was shut off on Jan. 26 in the dispute.

The utility said it is still negotiating for 1.8 million reals ($600,000) in unpaid bills from the organizing committee of last year’s Rio Olympics. Rio 2016 organizers still owe millions to companies which helped prepare the Olympics and Paralympics

The stadium has been vandalized over the last month with seats torn out, televisions stolen and the grass field left untended.

VIDEO: FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta unleashes howitzer goal

Arabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel lloyd (1) reaches up to block a shot from FC Dallas as defender Rigoberto Nino (2) and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta (23) watch in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals soccer match, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in Frisco, Texas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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With FC Dallas taking on Panamanian club Aribe Unido in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta grabbed a second for the Major League Soccer club 10 minutes past halftime.

It wasn’t just any old goal. It was a STRIKE.

The Texas native trailed the play, and with Roland Lamah shut off in the box by solid man-marking on the ball, Acosta was there to provide an outlet, and he blasted a vicious strike into the top-left corner. The find by Lamah was a smart one with a host of defenders closing in, and his calm demeanor was rewarded as his teammate launched a rocket into the back of the net.

The goal is a fodder for those who believe Acosta, who has played full-back for much of his career, should be a midfielder instead. His positioning and ability to trail the play with deadly accuracy is what makes this goal so special.

Acosta would bag a third in the dying minutes of the game, giving FC Dallas a 3-0 lead to take on the road as they travel to Panama for the second leg on March 1st.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

EFL Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.