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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.

Jurgen Klopp already wants a piece of Man City next season

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Manchester City may have run away with the Premier League title this year, but Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp can’t wait for a clean slate to try and challenge City’s title defense next season.

The Reds are into the Champions League semifinals and also looking to finish the Premier League season strong in a battle for positioning in the top four, but when asked about next year, Klopp was giddy.

“Of course I don’t fear the challenge,” Klopp said in his prematch press conference ahead of Liverpool’s Premier League visit to West Brom on Saturday morning.

The German made it clear he wants a piece of Manchester City next season. “This year, if City plays a normal season – which they didn’t do – then it would have been really close until the end because we are now all close together.”

“United is four points ahead [of Liverpool], Tottenham is two points behind. It’s a real fight for these positions. All big six pretty much delivered this year but City delivered the best. We will see. It’s difficult to deal with success as it is difficult to deal with other things in football but I’m pretty sure they will be strong again.”

Liverpool is one of only two teams to beat City in league play this year, with Manchester United being the other. Klopp and company torched the City back line in a wild 4-3 victory that ended City’s 22-match unbeaten run. Ultimately, though, Klopp knows they have to look at the entire season as a whole to best the defending champs next year, not just their matches against each other.

“It’s not important how good City will be, it’s about how we can get all the other points, plus the points we got so far again,” he said. “That’s the job to do. That is why it is always possible that it is closer. But are they able to dominate? They don’t have a limit to spending and all that stuff so I don’t know.”

VIDEO: Goalkeeper sends Memphis Depay flying with skillful touch

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Former Manchester United attacker Memphis Depay has one of the brightest spots for Lyon this season that sees them battling with Monaco and Marseille for 2nd place behind a dominant PSG. He has scored 15 goals and assisted 11 others this Ligue 1 campaign, adding to his tally just four minutes into Friday’s 5-2 win over Dijon, the sixth win in a row for the club that pulled them within a point of Monaco.

However, there was a moment to forget for Depay in the victory as well.

With the score still at 1-1 in the 19th minute, Depay was sent high up the pitch to press Dijon goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet, owner of the leakiest net of the Ligue 1 season. Nevertheless, sometimes the underdog prevails, and that’s what happened as Depay flung himself at the ball to put Reynet under pressure.

One silky touch by the netminder was all it took for Depay to end up on his backside.

The 24-year-old Dutch winger has had a fantastic season and one that could potentially propel him back to the biggest stage and a bigger paycheck, but for now, we can all poke fun at his misery in the moment.

Dortmund admits interest in signing Batshuayi permanently

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Michy Batshuayi might be out for the season with a serious ankle injury, but he may have already done enough to earn a permanent move to Borussia Dortmund.

The Chelsea striker moved on loan to the Bundesliga side in January and made an immediate impact, scoring two goals on his debut, and ultimately wound up with seven goals in 10 Bundesliga games before his ankle injury brought his season to a close. Now, the Dortmund front office is speaking very highly of the Belgian goalscorer, not so subtly hinting that they will take an aggressive approach this summer.

The interest to sign him is there,” said Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. “But first we have to wait and see who will be Chelsea’s coach next season. Then we’ll start looking.”

Chelsea has Antonio Conte currently at the helm, but there are strong rumors that the Italian will depart at the end of the season as the Blues sit comfortably outside the Champions League places. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is known for his quick trigger, and despite Conte winning the Premier League just last season, this year’s disappointment will likely not be tolerated.

That yet-to-be-determined future has a significant impact on Batshuayi’s future, as Watzke mentions. The new Chelsea boss could take a liking to Batshuayi, which could complicate his permanent move. In addition, it’s possible that current players on the Blues roster could depart, like Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud, or Willian, making Batshuayi’s place at Chelsea more tenable.

There’s plenty to be sorted out in the coming months, but with Batshuayi’s 10-game performance at Westfalenstadion at the forefront of Watzke’s mind, it’s clear there will be potential here as the summer draws near.

Sessegnon scores 15th as Fulham equals Man City unbeaten mark

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Fulham equalled the longest unbeaten run in the English top four tiers this season as it defeated sixth-placed Millwall 3-0 on the road to increase its streak to 22 games without a loss and moving the club into position for automatic promotion.

The Whites have not lost since December 16th when they fell 1-0 to relegation-threatened Sunderland. The unbeaten streak matches Manchester City’s run of 22 games to start the Premier League campaign before a 4-3 loss to Liverpool in mid-January broke the spell.

Highlighting the match was the game’s opening goal from 17-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, the young defender’s 15th goal of the Championship season. Just a week ago, Sessegnon was named a finalist for PFA Player of the Year alongside Harry Kane, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling. Also scoring in the win was Newcastle loanee Aleksandar Mitrovic who has bagged 11 goals in 15 matches since moving to Craven Cottage on Deadline Day of the winter transfer window, sparking talk of a possible permanent move should the Whites find themselves promoted at the end of the season. Fulham has not trailed a single second since he stepped on the field for his club debut.

Manager Slavisa Jokanovic has the team firing on all cylinders, outscoring opponents 49-14 during the unbeaten streak and racking up 56 out of a possible 66 points, with just five draws blemishing an otherwise perfect record. The club has scored first in 15 straight matches, and has not trailed since drawing level in the closing minutes of a 2-2 draw with Hull City on December 30th. The only teams in the top four leagues to score more goals than Fulham since Jokanovic took over are Liverpool and Manchester City.

USMNT defender Tim Ream has been arguably the club’s most valuable player during the streak, locking down a defense that has picked up 11 clean sheets during the unbeaten run. Ream has played in all but two league matches this season, completing the full 90 minutes in all 41 of his appearances thus far. He has been voted Man of the Match five times this season by the fans on the team’s official website, most recently in a 1-0 victory over Reading on April 10th. He also grabbed the award in a 2-0 win over Championship title winners Wolves on February 24th, a game that saw the Whites out-possess and out-shoot the league champions. Ream had this stunning goal-line clearance in the victory over Millwall on Friday, saving Fulham’s bacon with goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli on the ground after an acrobatic save.

Fulham still has work to do in the Premier League promotion picture, despite the spectacular form. They sit in 2nd position as it stands, leading Cardiff City by two points, but Cardiff has yet to play this weekend, giving them a massive two games in hand. Fulham could ultimately be done in by a slow start to the season that saw them win just twice in the first nine matches of the season as the squad adjusted to a host of new additions. In addition, Fulham suffered a disappointing draw last time out against Brentford as the Bees scored in the 94th minute to deny Fulham all three points, a massive blow to their automatic promotion hopes. Still, Fulham would be considered favorites in any potential playoff run, with Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and Millwall currently the other teams in playoff positions.

There’s plenty on the line for the club over the next few weeks. Should Fulham fail to gain promotion, it could be a massive blow to the club as Sessegnon could be lured away from Craven Cottage, with Jokanovic and playmaker Tom Cairney also likely to garner speculation of a departure over the summer if the club was to remain in the Championship.