Preview: 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Group D

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The final group to kickoff at South Africa 2013 has the continent’s two top-rated teams, though there’s a clear favorite to finish first in group F. As always, Cote d’Ivoire was the pick going into Africa’s confederation championship, but with Algeria and Tunisia in their group, the perpetual picks have two capable North African hurdles ahead of a knockout round appearance.

Togo rounds out a quartet that’s been curiously labeled a group of death, one that begins play on Tuesday.

GROUP D: Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Algeria, Togo

COTE D’IVOIRE

World rank: 14; CAF rank: 1; Best finish: Champions in 1992.

They’re the favorite on name value alone, but oh, what a set of names. Les Elephants have the two best players in Africa, talent that makes them obvious favorites. Their results, however, have never matched their reputation, and although Sabri Lamouchi’s team is again touted by the casual fan to take home Africa’s championship, their often excessively casual play has left them title-less over the last two decades.

History: Egypt has seven titles. Ghana and Cameroon have four titles. Even Congo DR has won twice. How has Cote d’Ivoire only won one title in 28 previous editions of this tournament?

It’s not that they haven’t had success in the absolute sense. The Ivorians have finished in the top three seven times, but with three semifinal appearances in the last four tournaments, the Elephants have become Africa’s nearly men, each tournament representing their next chance to not break through.

Players: Sorry Robin van Persie, but Yaya Touré was the English Premier League’s best player last season. While this year he hasn’t replicated the dominant form he showed in 2011-12, he is still Africa’s best player. If he plays for Cote d’Ivoire like he did for Manchester City, Cote d’Ivoire will win this competition.

Then there’s Drogba. He’s 34, been in China for seven months, but Didier Drogba (Shanghai Shenhua) may still be one of the most dangerous players in the world. If he plays like he did in March through May (in Champions League), Cote d’Ivoire will win this competition. (Yes, there are a lot of ways the Ivorians win this competition.)

Then there’s Gervinho (Arsenal), Cheick Tioté (Newcastle), Siaka Tiéné (Paris Saint-Germain), Emmanuel Eboué (Galatasaray), Didier Zokora (Trabzonspor, Turkey), along with a host of other players that would help the Ivorians survive in most of the big European leagues. On paper, they are the best team in this tournament.

How they’ll play: This is a broken record. It comes up in almost every snapshot, and it speaks to the lack of cohesion in these teams. It also explains why, beyond Africa, talented teams like Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, and these Ivorians have had limited success in international competitions …

But the midfield will by the key for the Ivorians. Cote d’Ivoire has a great attack, solid defending, and excellent players in the middle, but the way that midfield plays is not enough to get the most out of Drogba, Gervinho, and Max Gradel (Saint Etienne) – the likely starters in Lamouchi’s 4-3-3.

That’s why this year might be different. Whereas in the past the big African teams have relied on the likes of John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien, and (lately) Alex Song to transcend their club roles and become more progressive players for their national teams, Yaya Touré — after years of being asked to do the same — has actually played and executed in more advanced positions for City. Now, instead of a team speculating a talented player can flip a switch for three weeks, Cote d’Ivoire has a basis to think this can actually work.

Outlook: This group won’t give the Ivorians any problem. If things go right, you’ll see steady improvement throughout there first two games (and cruise through the third), giving Les Elephants momentum and confidence they can carry into the final eight.

TUNISIA

World rank: 53; CAF rank: 10; Best finish: Champions in 2004.

Hindsight has painted Tunisia’s 2012 run as surprising, the Eagles of Carthage pushing Ghana in the round of eight before losing in extra time. The evaluation shows how overlooked the North Africans have become. Consistent qualifiers and a decent bet to make it our of most groups, the Tunisians have become too predictable to be interesting. As a result, they tend to get overlooked.

History: Tunisia has qualified for 11-straight tournaments, getting out of their group eight times. In that time they’ve made three semifinals, two finals, and won the tournament at home in 2004.

Players: Aymen Abdennour (Toulouse) is the base of the team, the 23-year-old central defender key to the Tunisian back line. Veteran Wissem Ben Yahia (Mersin İdmanyurdu, Turkey) will shield the defense, with Oussama Darragi (Sion) and 22-year-old Youssef Msakni (Kuwait SC) creating in support of the team’s only consistent scoring threat: Issam Jemâa (Kuwait SC).

How they’ll play: A 4-3-3 will allow Msakni, Jemaa and Saber Khelifa (Evian, France) to exhibit a skillful attack that instinctively plays on the counter but is capable of more. The team’s pressing can be problematic for a continental style that’s used to getting time on the ball while approaching the attacking half. That stylistic difference makes Tunisia a difficult matchup for most teams, a difference that’s capable of getting results that transcend their base talent level.

Outlook: This might be the year Tunisia doesn’t advance, which would be no fault of their own. With both Cote d’Ivoire and Algeria in their group, they’ll need to pull one mild upset to get through. It could happen in game one, a match with Algeria that both sides concede would decide the second team out of this group.

ALGERIA

World rank: 22; CAF rank: 2; Best finish: Champions in 1990.

After winning a fall 2009 playoff in Khartoum to advance to the World Cup past African champions Egypt, Algeria went into meltdown mode. They made the final four of Angola 2010 before imploding in the semis against the Pharoahs. At the World Cup, they were best known as the other team on the field during Landon Donovan’s goal.

After failing to qualify for Equatorial Guinea-Gabon in 2012, the Desert Foxes are back, with former Cote d’Ivoire head coach Vahid Halilhodžić trying to bring his heavy-handed stability to a team that was distracted by internal tensions.

History: Like Tunisia, Algeria has a consistent record of qualification, making 15 of the last 18 Cup of Nations. And like Tunisia, the only time they’ve taken home the trophy was when they hosted. That was one of only two times the Foxes have made the final.

Players: The Foxes have undergone a refactoring after their 2009 successes. Gone are players like Nadir Belhadj, Karim Matmour, Kader Ghezzal, Mourad Meghni, and Anthar Yahi – the core of Algeria’s previous team. Halilhodžić’s current team has nobody whose been capped more the 25 times (thanks in part to his omissions of Madjid Bougherra and Rafik Halliche).

Valencia attacker Sofiane Feghouli is the most dangerous man on the current team. He’ll be a problem for every left back he’s match up against this tournament. Veteran Marseille midfelder Foued Kadir will be tasked with finding him, while forward Islam Slimani (Belouizdad, Algeria) will need to take advantage of the chances Feghouli creates. Also expect contributions off the bench from Ryad Boudebouz (Sochaux, France).

At the back, Carl Medjani (Ajaccio, France), Djamel Mesbah (Milan), and Liassine Cadamuro (Real Sociedad) feature in one of the tournament’s better back lines, one that will be protected by Getafe’s Mehdi Lacen.

How they’ll play: Whereas before Algeria would shift between a 3-5-2 and 4-4-2, now the Halilhodžić has the team going between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, with more of the latter thanks to players like Feghouli, Boudebouz and El Arbi Soudani (Vitoria Guimaraes, Portugal). Like other North African teams, they’ve tended to excessive rely on counter attacking in recent years. If you play off the Algerians, you’ll rarely hurt.

Outlook: Most are picking them to get out of this group, but it’s a tossup between them and Tunisia. The order of games might end up deciding who goes through, with Cote d’Ivoire’s (lack of) third game incentives potentially giving one team an advantage.

TOGO

World rank: 110; CAF rank: 31; Best finish: Six group stage exits.

Their place in this group has led to many’s conclusion this is the group of death, but Togo’s reputation is based on the presence of one world class player. Beyond a potentially unstoppable striker, they aren’t much, and given that striker almost skipped the tournament, Didier Six is right to bemoan preparations disrupted by a compensation row.

History: Togo’s only qualified for seven tournaments (participating in six) and has never advanced beyond the group stage. With only one World Cup appearance (where they finished 30th), the Sparrow Hawks have no history of success at major tournaments.

Players: The one other player that has the talent to match the Ivorian duo is Emmanuel Adebayor (Tottenham). But until last week, it was unclear Togoan No. 9 was going to come to the tournament. At first it was reservations spurring from a 2010 Angolan rebel assault that kept the team out of that year’s championship. Then, it because a question over internal federation issues. Abedayor has been a consistently inconsistent presence for a team that depends on his talents.

Beyond Adebayor, it’s a pretty non-descript squad. Nine players are based in France, with Reims’ 34-year-old goalkeeper Kossi Agassa providing some needed experience. Defender Daré Nibombé (Boussu Dour, Belgium) is the team’s most-capped player with 67 appearances, while veteran Moustapha Salfiou is still a probable starter despite not having a club.

How they’ll play: Another 4-3-3 one that will both leave Emmanuel Adebayor isolated as well as stretch the defense enough to create room for his speed to exploit. His chances will be rare as Togo sees very little control of their matches.

Outlook: Some team has to finish last.

SCHEDULE

Tuesday, Jan. 22, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Cote d’Ivoire versus Togo
Tuesday, Jan. 22, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Tunisia versus Algeria
Saturday, Jan. 26, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Cote d’Ivoire versus Tunisia
Saturday, Jan, 26, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Algeria versus Togo
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Algeria versus Cote d’Ivoire
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Togo versus Tunisia

Wild guess order of finish:

1. Cote d’Ivoire (7 pts.)
2. Algeria (5 pts.)
3. Tunisia (4 pts.)
4. Togo (0 pts.)

Man United boss Solskjaer slams Liverpool’s trophy drought

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fired one across Jurgen Klopp‘s bow ahead of Manchester United’s meeting with Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday.

In particular, the former Manchester United striker took aim at Liverpool’s lack of titles over the past decade, and their lack of a Premier League title. With the knowledge that the Red Devils are not in the title race and their adversaries are, Solskjaer hopes United can get back to the top spot soon, wary of a lengthy drought.

[ PREVIEW: Manchester United v. Liverpool ]

“I have loads of Liverpool fans back home [in Norway] and every year is going to be their year,” Solskjaer said ahead of Sunday’s match at 9:05 a.m. ET. “It has got to October and it’s: ‘OK, next year.’ Now they are in the race so for them, it is going to be an exciting finish to the league. That is none of our concern. We just have to concentrate on ourselves.”

Manchester United has not won a Premier League title in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson‘s retirement. Under his care, the club won 12 Premier League titles plus five FA Cup titles and four League Cup titles. Meanwhile, Liverpool has not won a Premier League crown in its history, last winning the English top flight in 1990, two years before the formation of the Premier League as it currently stands.

“Of course they do feel that pressure,” Solskjaer said of Liverpool. “I think all the supporters do and players probably do as well. But then we have not won it for a few years and so we want to get back to that. We have to make sure that we don’t end up being happy being among the top four. If you aim too low and reach your target, then that’s more dangerous than aiming too high and missing them.”

Solskjaer is very familiar with the rivalry between these two clubs, dating back to his time as a player. Most notably, he scored a 90th minute winner in 1990 FA Cup play against the Reds after coming off the bench in the 81st minute.

Roma boss Di Francesco worried after late win

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Edin Dzeko saved Roma in the 95th minute, sealing a 3-2 win over Frosinone and moving the club back to within a point of a Champions League place. Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco wasn’t having it.

“We can’t keep getting away with this type of performance,” Di Francesco said to the media after the game.

[ MORE: Serie A recap as Roma and Torino win ]

Despite its solid league position down the stretch of the season, the club has looked shaky at times. On Saturday, the defense put forth a calamitous performance at the back filled with mistakes, bad passes, poor marking, and questionable decision-making. The game was tied 2-2 for most of the second half with Roma’s relegation-threatened opponents nearly pulling out a win if it wasn’t for goalkeeper Robin Olsen’s spectacular save.

“The positive from this evening is that we won, but I do hope he can start to play much better football from now on,” Di Francesco said. “The second goal came from our own set play and our positioning was off, Daniele De Rossi misread the situation.”

“Frosinone are scrapping for every point to secure safety and I know what that is like. We made too many mistakes and should’ve approached the game better, as we risked a draw or even a defeat. We always find a way to make life more complicated for ourselves with distractions.”

Frosinone’s first goal came from a mistake by Steven N’Zonzi, whose back-pass to no one was intercepted by Camillo Ciano who scored despite a great save attempt by Olsen. The hosts scored their second on the break as De Rossi and Aleksandr Kolarov were torn apart on the break despite a one-on-two advantage for the defenders.

“We had the game in hand and should’ve finished it off rather than just tried to control it. We’ve shown over the season that we are a team capable of scoring goals, but also of conceding them. We’ve got to improve.”

Despite the poor defensive performance, the attack played spectacular at times, with Stephan El Shaarawy the star and Dzeko a force. Dzeko was on hand to bundle in the winner five minutes into stoppage time as El Shaarawy lofted a short cross over a defender and into the chest of the Bosnian striker.

League Cup Final preview: Sarri, Pep match wits for 4th time

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Sunday’s League Cup Final could be a moment for one manager to right his ship, or drive the other to the start of an improbable quadruple.

Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri duels with Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, just 14 days after the latter outmaneuvered the former to the tune of a 6-0 shellacking at the Etihad Stadium.

[ RECAP: West Ham 3-1 Fulham ]

The loss was Chelsea’s second to City this season, though the Blues did manage a 2-0 defeat in league play at Stamford Bridge on Dec. 8.

It’s also the second time the two will go head-to-head for silverware, as Man City outlasted Chelsea 2-0 for the Community Shield on Aug. 5.

That loss to City didn’t send the Chelsea faithful scurrying from “Sarriball,” but they’ve become far less supportive of the Blues’ boss.

And Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger says Friday is a chance for his side to show the supporters the better side of what Sarri has implemented at Stamford Bridge.

“That will show the truth,” Rudiger said. “That will show our way this ­season. It will be the truth in terms of  keeping up with opponents like City Liverpool and Tottenham. What if it shows we are not that close? Then that is the reality.”

“You always play for your manager but you want results. You want to win. No player likes to have the kind of run we’ve had.”

Rudiger is a quote-giving marvel. Chelsea needs to keep him just for the departure from the norm he provides the media.

As for Guardiola, he’s also supportive of Sarri and thinks the Blues faithful should take a step back. He references the heat given to Antonio Conte the year after he won a Premier League crown.

Guardiola is also not thrilled that the 6-0 result is the last time City played Chelsea. From The London Evening Standard:

“In that moment I was so happy to beat them 6-0, but now in this moment I would prefer not to have beaten them 6-0. I don’t like to play in a short period of time when you’ve beaten them by so much,” he said. “They are incredible professional players, they are proud, they will do extra.”

“When we lost there and when we won here, my opinion of Sarri and his teams is always high. When we reviewed the game against us, maybe people don’t believe me, but they did incredible things.”

They’ll have to do more incredible things Sunday at Wembley, or City will lay claim to its fourth League Cup title in six tries (and seventh overall).

The winner Sunday will have the second-most League Cup wins in history.

League Cup Final Preview: Chelsea-Man City

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  • Both Chelsea and Man City have won the League Cup 5 times in club history
  • These teams have never met before in the League Cup final
  • Only 4 clubs have successfully retained the League Cup trophy

Chelsea looks to prove the 6-0 thwacking at the hands of Manchester City two weeks ago was a fluke as the two sides meet with a trophy on the line in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET at Wembley Stadium.

Blues boss Maurizio Sarri has been under fire the last few weeks for a downturn in form, with the club having lost three of its last four Premier League matches, including the heavy defeat to Man City. They have conceded 12 goals in those four matches, blown out not just by Man City but also by Bournemouth, plus a loss to an inconsistent Arsenal side to start the slide.

With a massive chance for Sarri to make a statement that he deserves his position, the Italian may be without first-choice goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga who picked up a hamstring injury of late, and could be sidelined alongside Pedro and Davide Zappacosta who both have fallen ill.

For Manchester City, Pep Guardiola will have to make decisions on who to risk amid a tight Premier League title battle with Liverpool. While the trophy obviously means something to both sides, it also presents yet another fixture that could prove costly amid a tight league race which could have implications on the final few months.

Guardiola doesn’t expect to roll over the Blues with the same ease they did two weeks ago. “I don’t like to play the same team in a short period of time when you have beaten them before,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “They [Chelsea] are incredibly professional players, they are proud and bright and will do extra. We are going to play the type of game you have to play in a final and try to win the title.”

The biggest of Guardiola’s selection questions are in net, with the decision of starting regular number one goalkeeper Ederson or third-string Arijanet Muric who has been the go-to netminder for the entire League Cup run. Backup Claudio Bravo has been sidelined for the year with a long-term injury.

“Of course it is not the most important title of the season but once we are here in an amazing stadium against a top side, we want to prepare to win,” Guardiola said.

Also in question may be striker Sergio Aguero who scored a hat-trick against Chelsea last time out. He has featured in two of the five League Cup matches, but the final could be a high-pressure situation to give Gabriel Jesus a look while also giving Aguero some time off. The 30-year-old Aguero has featured in each of the last 10 Premier League matches.