Preview: 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Group C

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Coming off their first African title, Zambia gets a fortunate group draw to start their title defense. A refactoring Nigerian team is the group’s next threat, with two teams who’ve failed to impact recent tournaments rounding out Group C.

Like Group B, there is a top-heavy nature to this group, but while a team like Congo DR provided a threat at the bottom of Ghana’s group, the underdogs in this group sit waiting for a favorite to slip. A mistake-free mini-tournament should see the top two through.

Group C kicks off on Monday.

GROUP C: Zambia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia

ZAMBIA

World rank: 39; CAF rank: 5; Best finish: Champions in 2012.

The Copper Bullets shocked the world in 2012, defeating tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire in the final to claim their first Cup of Nations. While that result sees Hervé Renard’s side carrying new expectations into South Africa, few are picking Zambia to make a run for a second title.

History: Though 2012 was the Copper Bullets’ first Cup victory, the team had made two previous appearances in the tournament final: 1974, 1994. Despite only limited success, Zambia have been consistent qualifiers for the competition, participating in 12 of the last 13 tournaments.

Players: Attacker Christopher Katongo (Henan Jianye, China) was player of the tournament last year. He’ll line up in support of 22-year-old Southampton striker Emmanuel Mayuka, one of two Copper Bullets playing in Europe’s big five leagues. The other, Stophira Sunzu (Reading, England), will anchor a defense featuring the team’s most-capped player, 35-year-old left back Joseph Musonda (Golden Arrows, South Africa). Isaac Chansa (Henan Jianye) will feature in midfield, while 21-year-old Chisamba Lungu (Ural Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia) is expected to get the call on the right side of Renard’s attack.

How they’ll play: Zambia’s lack of quality in midfield forces them to rely on the counter, something they proved adept at executing last year. It is, however, possible for them to be choked out of games, something that may explain their mediocre results since last year’s title.

Outlook: The Copper Bullets will need some breaks to replicate last year’s run, but making it out of group shouldn’t be a problem.

NIGERIA

World rank: 52; CAF rank: 9; Best finish: Champions in 1980 and 1994.

Internationally, Nigeria is still regarded as one of the Africa’s elites, a view that matches the pride and expectations of fans at home. But the luster is gone from a nation whose recent results fail to match their talent. The Super Eagles failed to qualify for Equatorial Guinea-Gabon and have not advanced from their World Cup group since their success in the 1990s.

History: Including their two titles, Nigeria has 13 top-three finishes — the most of any nation — but it’s been nearly 20 years since their last title. They haven’t made a tournament final in 13 years.

Players: After the disappointment of South Africa 2010, players like Peter Odemwingie, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, John Utaka and Obafemi Martins have been phased out of the team. The only players over 25 who are expected to start Nigeria’s first match are defender and captain Joseph Yobo (32, Fenerbahçe) as well as goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama (30, Maccabi Tel Aviv). Attackers Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow), Victor Moses (Chelsea), and Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow) average just over 22 years old, while 25-year-old John Obi-Mikel (Chelsea) is the old man in a midfield with Padova’s Nwankwo Obiorah and Real Betis’s Nosa Igiebor.

How they’ll play: Nigeria’s personnel has changed, but their play will largely be the same. Theirs is a stylish, flowing game that tends to work vertically as opposed to relying on possession. Particularly in their front three, the team has skill, pace, and potential, but despite the turnover in players, the question remains the same: Do they have a midfield to match?

Outlook: It’s an inexperienced squad but one that should be able to get out of the group on talent alone. Burkina Faso is capable while Ethopia’s stocking up. The Super Eagles’ inexperience is the risk.

BURKINA FASO

World rank: 92; CAF rank: 23; Best finish: Fourth place in 1998.

Having never qualified for a World Cup, Burkina Faso is the type of nation fans outside of Africa know little about. But with a number of players who play in prominent leagues, the Stallions are a more capable team than their lack of reputation suggests. The question is whether they can convert that talent, particularly in attack, to a team that can do more than merely keep up. Can Burkina Faso actually threaten anybody?

History: The team’s been a consistent qualifier for recent Cup of Nations, making eight of the last 10 editions of the tournament. Unfortunately they’ve only made it beyond the first round once: At home in 1998. Undone by their inability to score goals, the Stallions have been insignificant participants.

Players: Moumouni Dagano’s (Al-Sailiya, Qatar) 24 goals in 58 appearances make him Burkina Faso’s most-proven scoring threat, but left wing Jonathan Pitroipa is their most dangerous player. One of the main threats for Rennes in Ligue 1, the 26-year-old has been unable to find the same success for his national team (four goals in 34 appearances). Now’s the time for him to step up.

Marsielle’s Charles Kaboré plays at the base of a midfield purposing the more advanced Alain Traouré (Auxerre, France), with Lyon’s Bakary Koné the team’s best defender.

How they’ll play: A solid team that’s capable of containing opponents, Bukina Faso’s style typically lacks drive doing forward. The can play either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, both of which will lack drive from the midfield. It’s unclear how head coach Paul Put can solve that problem.

Outlook: This is a team that could take advantage of Nigeria’s inexperience, but not if the Super Eagles play to their potential. The Stallions are waiting for somebody to fall before breaking back through into the quarterfinals.

ETHIOPIA

World rank: 110; CAF rank: 31; Best finish: 1962 Champions.

It’s been 31 years since Ethiopia has qualified for a major tournament. To do so, the former Champions needed five goals over two qualifying legs, eventually advancing past Sudan on the away goals tiebreaker. At 31st in the region, they are this year’s lowest-ranked qualifier.

History: Ethiopia won the third Cup of Nations and qualified for each of the first seven tournaments. Since, the Walya Antelopes have only qualified twice and not since 1982. They haven’t advanced beyond group play since the year they won the title.

Players: Nineteen of the squad’s 23 players are domestic-based, with Minnesota-raised NASL forward and former U.S. U-level player Fuad Ibrahim one of the exceptions. He’s part of a concerted search for new Ethopian talent.

Defender Degu Debebe captains the team. He’s been capped 44 times and will be partnered in central defense by Saint George teammate Abebaw Butako. (Seven Saint George players are in the squad.)

Twnety-five year old Addis Hintsa (Dedebit, Ethipoia) holds down the midfield, with Egypt-based Saladin Said (Wadi Degla) leading the attack.

How they’ll play: Inconsistently. Doing forward, the Antelopes are capable of goals (as they showed against Sudan), but they tend to play on the counter while paradoxically leaving an inconsistent defense excessively exposed.

Outlook: The Ethiopians are ambitious, but their ambition is more likely to be rewarded in their quest to qualify for Brazil. They’ll need both breaks and luck to get out of this group.

SCHEDULE

Monday, Jan. 21, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Zambia versus Ethiopia
Monday, Jan. 21, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Nigeria versus Burkina Faso
Friday, Jan. 25, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Zambia versus Nigeria
Friday, Jan, 25, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Burkina Faso versus Ethiopia
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Burkina Faso versus Zambia
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Ethiopia versus Nigeria

Wild guess order of finish:

1. Zambia (7 pts.)
2. Nigeria (5 pts.)
3. Burkina Faso (2 pts.)
4. Ethiopia (1 pt.)

Report: Arsenal in talks to sign Mari

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Arsenal are still in talks to sign Spanish center back Pablo Mari despite the player returning to Brazilian club Flamengo after being in London.

Our partners at Sky Sports in the UK believe that the plan was always for Mari to return to Brazil as Arsenal and the reigning Brazilian champions are locked in talks about an initial loan deal for the 26-year-old.

The deal would be a loan with an option to buy in the summer and would give Mikel Arteta some much-needed depth in central defense.

Mari moved to Man City in 2016 but never played for City as he was loaned out to Girona, NAC Breda and Deportivo La Coruna before he left City last summer on a permanent deal to Flamengo. He has since won the Brazilian title and Copa Libertadores with Flamengo and played in the FIFA Club World Cup final against Liverpool as they lost 1-0 in extra time.

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

With Callum Chambers out injured until next season, plus David Luiz, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis out of form, Arteta’s main aim is to shore things up at the back.

Since he arrived in December the Gunners have become tougher to beat and are playing with more energy but individual errors, especially defensively, continue to cost them dear as they sit 10 points off the top four with 14 games to go.

If Arsenal can improved defensively then a top four push, or at the very least a run to the Europa League final, isn’t out of the question and adding Mari or another center back is key for Arteta in the final days of the window.

Arsenal have been linked with Jerome Boateng, Dayot Upamecano, Mykola Matviyenko, John Stones and many other center backs this month but it seems like a deal for Mari would perhaps be the easiest to get over the line before Friday’s deadline.

Barcelona’s Setien under pressure after three games in charge

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona hired Quique Setien to improve a team that was already leading the Spanish league.

Two weeks later, the defending champions are trailing Real Madrid and clearly struggling to adapt to the on-the-fly coaching change.

The team has boosted its possession of the ball and its number of passes, tenants of the orthodox Barcelona style professed by Setien that had waned in recent seasons. But that has yet to make it firmer on defense or lead to more goals compared to its performances under predecessor Ernesto Valverde.

Barcelona needed a goal by Lionel Messi to get past Granada 1-0 in Setien’s debut on Jan. 19. A double by Antoine Griezmann, including a second goal in stoppage time, saved them against third-tier side Ibiza in the Copa del Rey with a 2-1 win on Wednesday.

But on Saturday Barcelona was completely outplayed at Valencia, which was content to let Barcelona have the ball and then wait to pounce on the break. Valencia won 2-0 despite also missing a penalty and hitting the post. Madrid’s 1-0 win at Valladolid on Sunday let it move three points ahead and take charge of the title race.

Setien acknowledged that his team has yet to play like he wants.

“We are evaluating the position of our players and the understanding we need to have to do what we propose,” Setien said after Saturday’s loss. “One thing is that (the players) understand it on the chalkboard and quite another is how we put it into practice.”

Setien’s three-man backline, a change from Valverde’s four defenders, left the team’s flanks exposed against Valencia. Ansu Fati and Jordi Alba, playing as wing backs, were unable to effectively join the attack. And, most disconcertingly for Setien, the midfield of Sergio Buquests, Frenkie de Jong, and Arthur failed to set up Messi and Griezmann in scoring positions.

Barcelona only got going once it was trailing in the score and after Arturo Vidal had replaced Arthur. Vidal set up Messi’s goal against Granada and was his best partner in attack again at Valencia.

“There are things that (my players) didn’t interpret correctly,” Setien said. “That, or we didn’t explain them well. We made passes that didn’t help advance the team. There are things we need to work on to correct.”

Setien will need to work out the kinks in his team before Barcelona visits Napoli in the opening leg of their Champions League round-of-16 leg on Feb. 25.

Next up is Leganes in the Copa del Rey round-of-16 on Thursday.

SIMEONE’S SLUMP

Atletico Madrid is in a slump and its road forward is only going to get more difficult.

Diego Simeone’s side will take a four-game winless streak across all competitions to crosstown rival Real Madrid next weekend.

Madrid bettered Atletico on Jan. 12 in a penalty shootout to win the Spanish Super Cup. That loss started a wretched run for Atletico that has included a 2-0 loss at Eibar, a humiliating exit from the Copa del Rey to a third-tier team, and Sunday’s 0-0 draw at home with lowly Leganes.

“The results are not good, but we have never stopped trying nor fighting for the good times to return,” goalkeeper Jan Oblak said. “We hope to build the run of wins that we all need.”

While Oblak is keeping the team in matches by anchoring a strong defense, the team’s attack is sputtering. With 22 goals in 21 league matches, only five teams in the 20-team division have scored fewer. Barcelona, the leading scorer, has 50 goals.

The pressure will be on former Madrid player Alvaro Morata to lead an attack with Angel Correa and youngster Joao Felix, who has yet to meet expectations following his 120 million euros ($133 million) transfer from Benifca.

A win at the Santiago Bernabeu would do wonders to silence Atletico’s critics. A loss would realistically leave the team with only the Champions League to play for. It faces defending champion Liverpool in the round-of-16 next month.

More AP soccer https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Americans Abroad: Johnson, Yedlin register starts; Miazga injured in FA Cup bout

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After last weekend served as the year’s best weekend yet for Americans abroad, positive activity was scarce this time around.

Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin returned to their respective team’s starting lineups, but neither them or any other American abroad managed to put the ball in the back of the net.

To make matters worse, Matt Miazga left Reading’s match on Saturday with an apparent ankle injury.

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

FA Cup

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — Yedlin was back on Steve Bruce‘s starting lineup on Saturday. The fullback played all 90 minutes in Newcastle’s draw with Oxford United.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes remianed on the bench in Derby’s 0-0 draw with Northampton Town on Friday.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old captain started and played 66 minutes before exiting the field with an apparent ankle injury against Cardiff City on Saturday.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The Tigers’ defender started and played 90 minutes in Hull’s 2-1 loss to Chelsea.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender stayed on the bench in QPR’s 2-1 loss to Sheffield Wednesday on Friday.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream played the final six minutes in Fulham’s 4-0 loss to Manchester City on Sunday.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — Weah didn’t feature on the field or on Lille’s bench this weekend.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Jordon-Siebatcheu watched Rennes draw 1-1 with Nice from the bench.

Eredivisie

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — Wright remained on the bench in Venlo’s 2-1 win over RKC Waalwijk on Sunday.

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest started and played 90 minutes in Ajax’s 2-1 defeat to Groningen.

Desevio Payne, FC Emmen — The U-23 MNT fullback didn’t dress for FC Emmen on Sunday.

Bundesliga

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt — The fullback played 89 minutes in Frankfurt’s 2-0 win over RB Leipzig on Saturday.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams started and played 71 minutes for Leipzig.

Weston McKennie, Schalke — McKennie is back and running, playing 10 minutes for Schalke in their 5-0 loss to Bayern Munich.

Zack Steffen, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen is inactive with an injury.

Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Morales started and played 90 minutes in Fortuna’s 3-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  The 19-year-old started and played 66 minutes in Werder Bremen’s 3-0 loss to Hoffenheim.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach — Johnson made his way back into Mönchengladbach’s starting cast, playing 87 minutes on Sunday.

Honorable Mentions

Alex Mendez, Jong Ajax — Mendez played all 90 minutes and registered an assist in Jong Ajax’s 3-3 draw with  NEC Nijmegen.

Mexicans Abroad: Vela starts preseason with a bang; Davila continues to shine in A-League

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It took Carlos Vela 10 minutes to prove that he didn’t lose a step over Major League Soccer’s lengthy offseason.

Vela, 30, started his third preseason in grandiose fashion, scoring a trademark left-footed curler against Uruguayan giants Peñarol. The Mexican winger, who scored a league-record 34 goals in 31 matches, inspired LAFC’s 2-0 win at the Banc of California Stadium.

Thousands of miles away, an old friend of Vela, Ulises Davila, delivered the good for his club once again. The Chivas academy product scored a goal and provided an assist in Wellington Phoenix’s 2-1 win over Newcastle Jets.

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers —  Jimenez and Wolves did not feature this weekend, but they did on Thursday, and the Mexican shined then. Jimenez scored his 11th goal of the season in Wolves’ 2-1 loss to leaders Liverpool, equalling Harry Kane‘s and Sadio Mane’s count. Thhe goal, itself, was a masterpiece:

La Liga

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid — Herrera took the field in the 62nd minute for Angel Correa and completed 25 passes in Atletico’s 0-0 draw with Leganes.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  Guardado started but left the field 34 minutes in after picking up an injury. Betis dropped three points after losing to Getafe 1-0.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old was not called up to Betis’ bench on Sunday. 

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo started and played 90 minutes in Celta’s draw with Eibar on Sunday.

Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli —  With reports linking the frenetic winger to Everton, Lozano continues lack playing minutes with Napoli. The 24-year-old was on Genaro Gattuso’s bench on Sunday, but was not substituted on in Napoli’s 2-1 win over Juventus.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played all 90 minutes in Porto’s 1-0 loss to Braga in the Taca da Liga final. It was reported that the 27-year-old’s home in Portugal was burglarized during the match.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven —  Gutierrez earned his first minutes of competitive playing time of the year on Sunday. The midfielder played the final eight minutes of PSV’s draw with FC Twente on Sunday.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — Alvarez dressed but remained on the bench for Ajax on Sunday.

Major League Soccer

Carlos Vela, LAFC – Vela kickstarted LAFC’s 2020 preseason in spectacular fashion. Take a look for yourself:

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea and Zulte were inactive this weekend.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Ulises Davila, Wellington Phoenix – On Thursday, Davila played a tremendous role in Phoenix’s 2-1 win, scoring a goal and adding an assist against Newcastle Jets. Davila is the A-League’s fourth highest scoring this season with 10 goals.