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.)

PSG vs. Dijon among 5 weekend French league games postponed

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PARIS (AP) For the second straight weekend, Ligue 1 leader Paris Saint-Germain will not play after several games were postponed at the request of authorities.

PSG’s match at Dijon on Saturday had initially been maintained, but it was among five weekend games postponed on Thursday after six matches were called off last weekend.

[ MORE: Europa League wrap ]

Saturday’s match between Amiens and Angers, as well as Sunday’s Brittany derby between Guingamp and Rennes, and Marseille’s home game against Bordeaux, will be played at a later date.

The French league said the reason for the postponements is because police forces are being stretched.

Saturday’s match between Nantes and Montpellier has also been postponed, and the match between Caen and Toulouse will take place on Tuesday.

Nice’s home game against Saint-Etienne – initially set for Friday and then postponed – will go ahead on Sunday.

It leaves Reims vs. Strasbourg as the only match left for Saturday, and Nimes vs. Lille and Lyon vs. Monaco are the only games still scheduled for Sunday.

Strasbourg is in mourning after a deadly Christmas market attack in the city on Tuesday night. A minute’s silence will be held at all soccer stadiums in France’s first and second divisions this weekend in memory of the victims and their families.

The six matches were postponed last week amid security concerns about anti-government protests. Those six matches are rescheduled for Jan. 15-16.

PSG will play its match against Montpellier, rescheduled from last weekend, on Jan. 15, but it may now be pushed back to February since it clashes with PSG’s planned winter training camp in Qatar, home to club owner QSI.

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

Top Premier League storylines for Week 17

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The Premier League begins a run of 50 matches in 18 days when Man City hosts Everton to kick off Week 17 on Saturday morning.

[ MORE: Europa League wrap ]

That’s a storyline in itself, but here are five we’re closely monitoring this weekend.


You don’t need a storyline when the Red Devils head to Anfield
Liverpool vs. Manchester United, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN 
[ STREAM ]

This one is easy to put in the win column for the in-form Reds against mercurial Manchester United, but be careful: When Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils hit matches like this, they tend to find something out of nothing.

League disappointment to continue for someone at the Etihad Stadium
Man City vs. Everton, 8:30 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN
 [ STREAM ]

The champs are no longer unbeaten in league play following a loss at Chelsea, while the visitors rescued a point against visiting Watford. Neither will want to drop points again on the bounce, and Everton could slip behind West Ham with a loss.

West Ham looks to continue its table surge with London Derby
Fulham vs. West Ham United, 12:30 a.m. ET on NBC STREAM ]

Speaking of the Irons, they very much have a chance to continue a run into contention for fifth or sixth. West Ham has won three matches, scoring nine goals, since losing to Man City, and a forgiving run of fixtures continues with Fulham, Watford, Saints, Burnley, and Brighton over the festive season. Could Manuel Pellegrini‘s men be sitting pretty by Jan. 3?

Tottenham aims for third-straight win as hopeful Clarets arrive at Wembley
Spurs vs. Burnley, 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSNSTREAM ]

Sean Dyche‘s Burnley finally picked up its third win of the season with a surprising defeat of Brighton, but going to Tottenham is another story. The Lilywhites are coming off a fine draw at Barcelona to go with two league wins, and the North London Derby loss can be avenged in the League Cup next week. They just cannot overlook the Clarets on Saturday.

Six-point scrap at The John Smith’s Stadium
Huddersfield Town vs. Newcastle Utd, 10 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold STREAM ]

The Terriers are three points behind the Magpies heading into this one. The way the relegation scrap is shaping up, anything less than three points in December could sting come May.

Europa League field: Who can Chelsea, Arsenal draw?

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There are 32 teams left in the quest for two spots at the Olympic Stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan, one of which will earn an automatic spot in the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Europa League wrap ]

The intrigue in the field took a hit when Rangers and AC Milan failed to advance, meaning there will not be an Old Firm Derby or Milan Derby inside of UEL play.

And Maurizio Sarri‘s last two clubs, Napoli and Chelsea, are seeded for the Round of 32 draw, so they will not meet for at least one more round.

Both Chelsea and Arsenal can draw anyone from the group of unseeded teams, with no English teams in the field. Arsenal-Celtic? Chelsea-Lazio?

Seeded teams
Bayer Leverkusen
Red Bull Salzburg
Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Dinamo Zagreb
Arsenal
Real Betis
Villarreal
Eintracht Frankfurt
Genk
Sevilla
Dynamo Kiev
Chelsea
Napoli
Valencia
Inter Milan
Benfica

Unseeded teams
Zurich
Celtic
Slavia Prague
Fenerbahce
Sporting Lisbon
Olympiacos
Rapid Vienna
Lazio
Malmo
Krasnodar
Rennes
BATE Borisov
Viktoria Plzen
Club Brugge
Shakhtar Donetsk
Galatasaray

Emery praises Arsenal teen: “His personality is very important”

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Unai Emery played the kids in Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Qarabag on Thursday at the Emirates Stadium, as the Gunners claimed the top spot in their group.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 1-0 Qarabag ]

Bukayo Saka, Carl JenkinsonJoe WillockEddie Nketiah, and Zech Medley all got meaningful playing time for the Gunners, and Emery specifically liked Saka (17).

Emery, like Arsene Wenger, believes very much in getting experiencefor his kids.

From The London Evening Standard:

“We have a responsibility to every young player to give them chances to train with us,” Emery told Standard Sport. “We are very demanding of ourselves in his performance. We give them these chances in the games like today when we can do that. They show us positive things in every match.

“Today Saka played with a good performance, with a very big personality. We were speaking at half-time, they were trying one-on-one against the opposition. Not every action was good for us but his personality is very important, continuing in the second half to try to do one-on-ones and break lines with his quality.”

Will anyone have made enough of an impact to get some time in the Premier League? We’ll see, but remember that this Gunners system has sent Reiss Nelson on loan to Hoffenheim.

Also, to put this in perspective: Saka was born six days before Sept. 11, 2001. This class of youngster in the Arsenal system is coming, and coming fast.