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.)

La Liga: Espanyol up to 2nd, Athletic held again

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The top of the La Liga table is quite something.

While Barcelona continues to lead the way, below them rests nearby Espanyol after the Periquitos defeated basement-dwellers Huesca 2-0 on Borja Iglesias’s third and fourth goals of the season. The Spaniard struck just before halftime to open the scoring, before hitting again just past the hour mark to seal the three points.

Real Valladolid jumped above Real Madrid into sixth with a 1-0 road victory at Real Betis. A 35th minute goal by 30-year-old journeyman Antonioto was enough to earn the win, as Betis popped off 20 total shots, but only four were on target. Takashi Inui had a great chance but whiffed right on the doorstep midway through the second half. With Sunday’s results, Real Madrid dropped all the way down to seventh.

Getafe topped Rayo Vallecano 2-1 to jump into the top half of the table. The eventual winner was a 67th minute own-goal by 20-year-old Sergio Akieme who would have been celebrated for a quality finish tapping home a cross, although it was into his own net.

Finally, first-half goals four minutes apart cancelled out as Athletic Bilbao and Eibar drew 1-1. The home side struck first at Ipurua Municipal Stadium as the referee went to VAR 17 minutes in and found that Inigo Martinez tackled Sergi Enrich in the box, a clear scythe after the Athletic defender anticipated incorrectly the incoming cross. 24-year-old Brazilian Charles completed the penalty with a slow run-up, putting the hosts in front. Four minutes later, the visitors struck back on a fabulous moment of anticipation by Raul Garcia who headed perfectly in front of a streaking Inaki Williams who got behind the defense and put the ball into the back of the net.

Timbers tops RSL to clinch playoffs, Galaxy now controls destiny

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The Western Conference playoff picture has become more clear after the Portland Timbers clinched a playoff spot by topping Real Salt Lake 3-0.

The victory not only secured a berth for Portland, but it also left RSL in a position of vulnerability. The LA Galaxy won at Minnesota 3-1 with Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the scoresheet, pulling within a point of RSL, who is done for the regular season, meaning the Galaxy controls its own destiny.

Portland put together a comprehensive performance, disappointing from RSL’s perspective with the playoffs on the line. 15 minutes in, Diego Valeri chipped in a free-kick and defender Larrys Mabiala made a run at the back post for the tap-in. Portland defended well for the rest of the first half, and while the visitors dominated the first part of the second half, they conceded again past the hour mark through another unlikely culprit in Diego Chara. On the counter, Chara made a storming run down the middle, and after collecting a Sebastian Blanco pass, he touched past a charging Nick Rimando and finished cooly. The third came from Blanco with three minutes to go to put the cherry on top of a solid overall performance.

Los Angeles picked up a vital three points thanks to a ruthless attack. Ibrahimovic headed home a beautiful looping cross from Rolf Feltscher right on the half-hour mark, and the Galaxy went up for good.

In the second half, a ridiculous four-minute stretch saw three goals in succession. First, Ola Kamara was denied on the doorstep by Michael Boxall, but seconds later he poked in an Ashley Cole cross at the near post for LA’s second. The third came just one minute later as Minnesota turned it over in their own defensive third, and Ibrahimovic crossed to Roman Alessandrini for an absurd volleyed finish. Minnesota got a consolation just two minutes later through Angello Rodríguez, but it wasn’t enough.

So, the playoff picture is thus: Portland is in with 54 points. RSL is currently in the playoffs, but their regular season is finished with 49 points. The Galaxy, therefore, sit below the cut line on 48 points but have a meeting with Houston next weekend for all the marbles. They need to win to advance to the playoffs, as a draw would leave them with one fewer win, the first tiebreaker.

Supporters Shield still up for grabs as Atlanta, NYRB both win

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The New York Red Bulls are still in the mix, but Atlanta United has taken a one-point lead into the final matchday of the season as both teams won on Sunday.

Atlanta United topped Chicago 2-1 at Mercedes-Benz stadium. Franco Escobar opened it up early and an own-goal put them ahead for good, keeping pace with RBNY’s win over Philadelphia and leaving them a point ahead at the top of the table.

Escobar’s strike came just eight minutes in, after feeding Josef Martinez near the penalty spot who whiffed and fell down, he latched back onto the loose ball and decided to take it himself, curling one inside the far post. Chicago scored in the 24th minute to level the score, but Atlanta did not relent.

Just two minutes after Chicago’s equalizer, Atlanta was back on top. Chris McCann crossed it from the left edge, and Johan Kappelhof attempted to slide and block the cross at the near post, but instead he redirected the ball into the back of his own net.

New York, meanwhile, kept pace with a 1-0 victory at Philadelphia behind a penalty from Kaku, sending Andre Blake the wrong way. The spot-kick was given on a VAR check that determined Alejandro Bedoya handled the ball.

On the final day of the season, the Red Bulls will host Orlando City, while Atlanta is on the road at Toronto. Atlanta can secure the Supporters’ Shield with a win, but New York can jump them with a win and an Atlanta draw or loss. Should Atlanta lose by one goal and the Red Bulls draw, the teams would be level on points, wins, and goal differential, meaning the significant Atlanta lead on goals scored would give them the advantage.

Rooney scores brace, DC United completes improbable playoff push

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They’ve done it. They’ve really done it.

D.C. United, with just two league wins through the first 19 games of the MLS season, has completed an improbable playoff bid by securing an Eastern Conference berth in the postseason with a 3-1 win over NYCFC on the penultimate matchday of the season.

Wayne Rooney, the catalyst for this amazing turnaround, fittingly scored a brace, including the opener just eight minutes in on a fabulous run from Luciano Acosta down the end line.

Acosta was there to secure the win, doubling the lead in the 24th minute with a long-distance strike into the top-right corner.

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was required to preserve the lead, getting down low to stop a tight-angle strike from David Villa towards the end of the first half. That would spur D.C. on, as they would seal the deal with a penalty from Rooney in the 74th minute, leaving NYCFC with just a consolation in the 78th minute when David Villa ended the bid for a clean sheet.

The victory caps an improbable second-half run for D.C. United, as they have won five in a row and 10 of their last 15. Rooney has been the leader, earning the role of captain despite just signing this summer, and scoring 12 goals in 19 MLS matches. With Columbus Crew drawing, D.C. jumped all the way up into fourth place with the win.