Preview: 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Group A

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Group A, the only quartet without a traditional continental power, kicks off play at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations on Saturday in South Africa. Whereas Ghana, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire take headlining slots in the competition’s other groups, a struggling host nation gets the preferred spot in the tournament’s first group. As a result, we’re left with a quartet where the highest ranked team has no history, the group’s former champions may be its weakest teams, and the team that has reason to think it can do some damage is could still tumble out after three games.

Welcome to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Over the next three days, we’ll be giving you snapshots of the four, four-team groups. Today, we begin with Group A, a packet that starts the tournament at 11 a.m. Eastern on Saturday.

GROUP A: South Africa, Angola, Morocco, Cape Verde

SOUTH AFRICA

World rank: 85; CAF rank: 22; Best finish: 1996 Champions

Many will remember the Bafana Bafana from their role as hosts for the 2010 World Cup. There, they became the first hosts to fail to advance out of their group. Things didn’t improve competitively after the finals, with the team failing to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations in Gabon-Equatorial Guinea.

South Africa were absolved from a potential repeat embarrassment when, in response to domestic unrest in Libya, hosting duties were switched to the continent’s southern tip. Now it’s a matter of taking advantage of that fortune.

History: South Africa was banned from participation for political reasons until 1994, when they failed to qualify. As hosts in 1996, they won the competition in their first appearance and went on to qualify for seven successive finals (finishing second in 1998, third in 2000). They’ve missed the last two tournaments.

Players: South Africa’s biggest star is Everton winger Steven Pienaar, but with the 30-year-old three months into an international retirement, the hosts are left with a team with few recognizable names. Some will remember midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala, the team’s most capped player (78), for his goal to open the 2010 World Cup, but with the possible exceptions of former Fulham midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi (now with second-division Crystal Palace), forward Bernard Parker (who spent a short time with FC Twente), and defender Bongani Khumalo (who spent one season bouncing around England), only South African league experts will be familiar with this roster.

How they’ll play: Head coach Gordon Igesund has played both one and two-striker formations in pre-tournament friendlies, each featuring 28-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns striker Katlego Mphela as the main threat. His 23 international goals (in 49 games) are almost twice as many as the next most-prolific player on the roster (Parker, 12).

Expect athletic but direct play that will rely on opportunism more than creativity.

Outlook: As hosts, they should expect to get out of this group, but a knockout round spot is not a given. If this tournament was being played anywhere else, the Bafana Bafana would be unlikely to come out of this group.

ANGOLA

World rank: 78; CAF rank: 19; Best finish: Two quarterfinal appearances

Despite only qualifying for one World Cup (2006), Angola is making their fifth straight appearance in their continent’s championship. In 2012, only the goal difference tiebreaker kept the Antelopes from making their third straight quarterfinal appearance. That setback hasn’t kept the Angolans from setting ambitious goals for this tournament. Uruguayan coach Gustavo Ferrin, having guided his team to South Africa on a seven-match unbeaten run, is starting a top three finish.

History: Angola didn’t qualify for the finals until 1996 but have since back seven of 10 tournaments. They’ve never advanced beyond the round of eight.

Players: Most of Ferrin’s squad plays in the Angolan domestic league. Former Manchester United prospect Manucho Goncalves (Real Valladolid) is the most notable exception, his size and athleticism making him one of the more difficult marks in the tournament. Mateus (Nacional, Portugal) has been a regular in the team since their run to the knockout round at Germany 2006, Djalma (Kasımpaşa, Turkey) will provide the creative spark, while veteran Gilberto (AEL Limassol, Cyprus) will serve as the midfield linchpin.

It’s an experienced group that has seen relative success in this competition. You can see why Ferrin wants them to be ambitious.

How they’ll play: In the past, Angola’s usually featured Goncalves as the focal point of a two-attacker setup, with the team’s four-man midfield featuring a creator and destroyer. The team Ferrin’s selected hints he’ll set up the same way; however, this will be the 53-year-old’s first major senior competition. It remains to be seen how he’ll manage it.

The Antelopes don’t play the most intense brand of soccer, but the technical quality is there. And they’re capable of getting out on the counter.

Outlook: Angola has the talent and pedigree to get out of this group, but drawn with the host nation, their path to the final eight is not without pitfalls. There are no easy games in this packet, and while the Angolans should be favored to advance, a second straight near miss wouldn’t be a shock.

source: Getty ImagesMOROCCO

World rank:  74; CAF rank: 17; Best finish: 1976 Champions

The 2015 hosts are appearing in their eighth finals in nine tournaments, yet the northwest African nation’s results have been mostly disappointing. While they lost to the hosts in the final of Tunisia 2004, the Lions of the Atlas have only moved out of group one other time since 1998. This year, head coach Rachid Taoussi is without most of the countries most prominent stars, with Marouane Chamakh (West Ham), Adel Tarrabt (Queens Park Rangers), and Houssine Kharja (Qatar’s Al-Araby) not in the team that travelled to South Africa. Despite the upheaval, Taoussi predicts the Lions and South Africa will advance from the group.

History: In addition to their 1976 title, Morocco has finished second (2004) and third (1980). Add in their fourth place finishes in 1996 and 1998 and the Lions have made the final four five times. It’s the most accomplished history in the group.

Players: Chamakh, Tarrabt, Kharja and excluded Anzhi Makhachkala midfielder Mbark Boussoufa have combined for 186 caps and 38 goals. The 23-man team Taoussi’s taking to South Africa count a total of 208 appearances and 12 goals.

This isn’t merely a matter of taking a young team. Only six players in Taoussi’s 23-man squad are under 24 years of age.

The most important of them is 22-year-old Montpellier midfielder Younès Belhanda (right). A key figure in MHSC’s 2011-12 Ligue 1 title run, Belhanda is among the most talented players in this tournament. Morocco will need a lot of luck to advance if Belhanda doesn’t perform like this group’s best player.

How they’ll play: In their latest pre-tournament friendly against Namibia, Taossi started Fiorentina’s Mounir El Hamdaoui as a striker flanked in attack by Galatasaray’s Nordin Amrabat, and Liverpool’s Oussama Assaidi; however, it remains to be seen how the team sets up when Balhanda returns from injury. In all likelihood, Belhanda will have to do some heavy lifting to power the attack in front of sitters Karim El Ahmadi (Aston Villa) and Adil Hermach (Al-Hilal).

Outlook: Taoussi’s over confident. This team’s unlikely to break Morocco’s recent trend of disappointment.

CAPE VERDE

World rank: 70; CAF rank: 15; Best finish: Never previously qualified

In the always unpredictable world of African soccer, Cape Verde’s qualification was the most difficult to foresee. This year’s only finals debutants, the Blue Sharks qualified at the expense of Cameroon, a four-time champion that was trying to avoid the indignity of missing a second straight Cup. With their 3-2 aggregate win in the final playoff round, the island nation of around 500,000 people qualified for South Africa, leaving the Indomitable Lions at home.

Players: Defender Nando is the team captain and most experienced player (38 appearances) on a young and Verdean team that have had little time together. The more intriguing attacker is 23-year-old Lille forward Ryan Mendes, who has scored three goals in nine international appearances. Olhanesne’s 21-year-old attacker Djaniny had a goal against Cameroon, one of two he’s scored in four international appearances.

How they’ll play: In their latest friendly, coach Lúcio Antunes started with one up top against Nigeria, though with players like Mendes and Djaniny starting on the bench, it’s unclear that’s how Antunes plans to play come Saturday’s opener against South Africa. As with most things Cape Verde soccer, how they’ll approach their first major tournament is an unknown.

Outlook: Having quickly acquired a reputation for a well-organized in defense, Cape Verde shouldn’t be an easy match for any team. However, they get some bad luck having to face the host nation in their Cup of Nations debut. While many expect the Sharks to give South Africa a difficult time on Saturday, it is their first major tournament match, and they’ll be on the road.

Had that match come later in the tournament, the Verdeans may be better prepared (having shaken off their first tournament jitters). In game one, they may miss out on valuable points they’d need to advance.

SCHEDULE

Saturday, Jan. 19, 11 a.m. ET – South Africa vs. Cape Verde
Saturday, Jan. 19, 2 p.m. ET – Angola vs. Morocco
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 10 a.m. ET – South Africa vs. Angola
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 1 p.m. ET – Morocco vs. Cape Verde
Sunday, Jan. 27, 12 p.m. ET – Morocco vs. South Africa
Sunday, Jan. 27, 12 p.m. ET – Cape Verde vs. Angola

Wild guess order of finish:

1. South Africa (7 pts.)
2. Angola (5 pts.)
3. Cape Verde (4 pts.)
4. Morocco (0 pts.)

Lacazette thanks Arteta, Arsenal teammates for support

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Alexandre Lacazette‘s 95th minute goal to finish off a 4-0 victory over Newcastle may seem meaningless, but to him it meant the world.

The 28-year-old Frenchman snapped a 10-match goalless streak across all competitions when he found the back of the net for the first time since a Champions League match on December 12. In total, Lacazette had been on the field for nearly 470 minutes without scoring before his goal in the final seconds against Newcastle.

“It has been really hard and complicated,” Lacazette said of his goal drought. “Sometimes I had some games with no chances, sometimes I missed or the goalkeeper saved it. Of course for a striker it is always hard to not score, but it happens in football. Hopefully it is the last time for me.”

However, Lacazette says both new manager Mikel Arteta and his teammates were supportive during the time he struggled to find the back of the net.

“He [Arteta] talked with me to give me confidence. I am really, really happy because I waited for this moment for a long time.  I am touched as well because of the way all my team-mates reacted when I scored that goal.  It means a lot to me and a lot for the spirit we have in the team. This is good.”

Arteta kept faith in Lacazette for much of his goal drought, starting in seven straight Premier League matches between late December and early February, but he was dropped for the Newcastle game for Eddie Nketiah, only coming on for the final five minutes when he found his moment. Lacazette confirmed that Arteta spoke to him about the match decision, saying “he explained it well” before pausing to say he cannot go into more details about the conversation.

Arsenal is on a six-game unbeaten streak in league play and eight overall, without losing since a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at the Emirates on December 29.

Timothy Weah re-injured on return to field

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An absolutely brutal turn of events has befallen American international Timothy Weah as the 19-year-old was re-injured just minutes after returning from a six-month layoff.

Weah, who will turn 20 this weekend, suffered a nasty hamstring tear just two matches into the season and has been missing since August. He finally returned to the field on Sunday, coming on for the final 10 minutes of a 2-1 loss to Marseille. However, Weah confirmed on his Instagram account that he was re-injured during his return. Reports in France say he was injured while making a run into the Marseille attacking third, grabbing at his thigh. He completed the match without being subbed off.

After thanking Lille fans for their support during his previous injury, Weah wrote, “Unfortunately for me things didn’t go as planned and I’ve injured myself again…. Better days will come and I know that God is watching over me 🙌🏾❤️Small setback for a major comeback 🙌🏾❤️”

It is unclear how severe the injury is, or if it is separate from the one he just worked so hard to come back from. His club Lille followed up with an official announcement to confirm the injury, saying it is his right hamstring that was most recently troubled, not the same one he had just finished rehabbing. No official timetable was given for his return, and no information on the severity of the injury was released.

Weah got support from some big names in the comment section of his Instagram post. Fellow American Tyler Adams posted “Onwards and upwards 🙌🏽❤️” while Bayern Munich full-back and Canadian international Alphonso Davies wrote “Yessir 💪🏾” and Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham gave him praise hands emojis.

The injury, if serious, is another big blow to the U.S. men’s national team, who has already seen Paul Arriola go down with a serious knee injury and is sweating another possible problem for the oft-injured Adams. Weah has not earned a senior international cap since November of 2018, while he last played internationally last summer during the 2019 U-20 World Cup.

Report: Barcelona given permission to sign emergency striker

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According to a report by Spanish tabloid Mundo Deportivo, Barcelona has been given permission by La Liga authorities to sign an emergency striker outside the January transfer window.

With Ousmane Dembele ruled out for the season after a serious hamstring tear, the Catalan club has just three healthy forwards in Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, and teenage sensation Ansu Fati. Luis Suarez was ruled long-term after knee surgery in mid-January.

The situation is not all that uncommon as far as La Liga is concerned, as the league often authorizes clubs to sign emergency players given injuries of longer than five months and low roster availability. There are certain restrictions that come with any potential signing, such as the player must be a forward. Any potential signing will only be eligible for league competition, and the player can only come from another La Liga side or be a free agent. The club has 15 days to complete a potential signing, while any club it raids would theb be given a window to sign its own replacement.

Barcelona somewhat made its own bed here, having sold both Carles Perez and Abel Ruiz at the end of the January transfer window.

Getafe striker Angel Rodriguez, Alaves target man Lucas Perez, Levante striker Roger Marti, and Leganes frontman Martin Braithwaite have all been mentioned as possibilities. Despite having scored 10 goals this campaign, Rodriguez seems to have lost his place in the Getafe starting lineup, without a start since January 4 with Jamie Mata and Deyverson occupying the spots on the teamsheet. Perez has had an odd season, with eight of his nine league goals coming in a nine-game stretch from late September to late November. Marti has 10 goals this season, but six of those have come in multi-goal games.

Any new signing would not be eligible for Champions League competition, as Barcelona matches up with Napoli in the Champions League Round of 16 this week.

Americans Abroad: Gall scores; Weah returns from injury

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Two USMNT names resurfaced over the weekend – for all the right reasons.

It’s been an overall quiet year for Romain Gall in Sweden, but the 25-year-old managed to challenge the narrative by scoring in Malmo’s cup bout.

While in France, Timothy Weah made a much-anticipated return from injury in Lille’s 2-1 loss. The 19-year-old played 10 minutes after being out for six months.

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — Pulisic is still recovering from his injury and will miss Monday’s game against Manchester United.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — Yedlin didn’t dress in Newcastle’s 4-0 loss to Arsenal on Sunday.

Indiana Vassilev, Aston Villa — Vassilev didn’t dress in Aston Villa’s last-minute 3-2 loss to Tottenham on Saturday.

EFL Championship

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic —  For a second weekend in a rown Robinson did not dress for Wigan. The failed move to AC Milan is apparently still haunting him.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes started and played 29 minutes before leaving with an ankle injury on Saturday.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old is out with a hamstring injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The defender is out for the season after sustaining an injury.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes in QPR’s 4-2 win over Stoke City.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 3-0 loss to Barnsley on Saturday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, Luton Town (loan Tottenham Hotspur) — Carter-Vickers started and played 90 minutes in Luton’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.

Bundesliga

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt Chandler started and played 90 minutes in Franjfurt’s 4-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund.

John Brooks, Wolfsburg – The 26-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes for the time since January 18. Wolfsburg won 3-2 over Hoffenheim.

Weston McKennie, Schalke —  McKennie started and played 90 minutes in Schalke’s 0-0 draw with Mainz.

Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen is out with an injury, while Morales started and played 90 minutes on Saturday.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  Sargent came off the bench and played 25 minutes in Werder Bremen’s 3-0 loss.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams is out with an injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson dressed but didn’t feature for Borussia Monchengladbach.

Eredivisie

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest started and played 90 minutes in Ajax’s 3-0 win over RKC Waalwijk.

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — The 21-year-old striker was on the bench but didn’t feature on Friday.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — After a six-month absence, Weah featured for Lille in official competition. The attacker played the final 10 minutes in Lille’s 2-1 loss to Marseille.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Jordon-Siebatcheu started and played 56 minutes in Rennes’ 1-0 loss to Stade Reims.

Honorable Mentions

Romain Gall, Malmo — Gall played the final 31 minutes in Malmo’s 8-0 thumping of Syrianska and contributed a goal.

Richard Ledezma, Jong PSV — Ledezma played 60 minutes and scored a goal in Jong PSV’s 1-1 draw with FC Eindhoven. The attacker missed out the final 30 minutes after seeing a straight red card.