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.)

AC Milan escapes FFP ruling with just suspended European ban

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AC Milan has escaped harsher Financial Fair Play punishments with the ruling handed down by UEFA on Friday. The European governing body announced that Milan’s punishment is highlighted by a one-year European ban in the 2022/23 and 2023/24 seasons, but that punishment is suspended and will not be imposed unless the club fails to break even over the course of the next 2.5 seasons through June of 2021.

UEFA also included a $13.5 million “fine” plus a European play squad restriction, both of which are imposed immediately. AC Milan will have that monetary sum withheld from its total European tournament prize haul, and the club will be restricted to a 21-player squad in Europe for the next two full seasons. The squad restriction is probably the harshest part of the punishment, leaving them with less wiggle room than the usual 25-player submission to account for injuries and mid-tournament player transactions.

Milan also escaped without a transfer ban, another possible punishment for clubs who breach Financial Fair Play rules.

The decision comes after UEFA handed down a rigid two-year European ban last summer, but the club appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won. The Court’s decision, which came this past July, said that the club’s finances had greatly improved under new ownership, and as such, they required a “proportionate disciplinary measure.”

The new ruling says the club can again appeal the decision, if they wish.

Milan was initially flagged for breaching FFP rules after spending a massive $200 million in the summer of 2017 under Chinese owner Li Yonghong, bringing in players like Leonardo Bonucci, Andre Silva, Hakan Calhanoglu, and Lucas Biglia, among others. Yonghong was forced to sell after he failed to make a loan payment, and the club was taken over by U.S. hedge fund Elliott Management Corporation.

Koulibaly left off CAF award shortlist amid Manchester United rumors

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The African confederation somehow managed to leave Kalidou Koulibaly off its shortlist for African Player of the Year, a head-scratching decision considering the rapidly rising stock of the 27-year-old Senegal international.

The CAF announced its 10-man shortlist for the award early Friday morning, before eventually awarding the distinction to Liverpool attacker Mohamed Salah for the second straight year. While Salah is undoubtedly a deserving winner given his goalscoring prowess over the past year and more, a failure to recognize Koulibaly’s presence in the landscape of African footballers is nothing short of embarrassing.

While Koulibaly was left off, Juventus defender Medhi Benatia was on the list, despite proving second-string behind Italians Leonardo Bonucci and Georgio Chiellini. While Koulibaly logged 3,426 minutes in the 2018 calendar year at the heart of Napoli’s defense, Benatia was just utilized for 1,988 minutes. While Koulibaly was an unused substitute just two times the entire 2018 calendar year across all competitions, Benatia has been left on the Juventus bench 14 times this season alone, and 22 times in the 2018 calendar year.

Also acknowledged on the list was Arsenal youngster Alex Iwobi, and while the 22-year-old is undoubtedly a rising talent on a large Premier League club and is slowly endearing himself to the fanbase, he has still logged just nine starts in Arsenal’s 16 Premier League matches this season and had just three goals and 11 assists across all competitions in the 2018 calendar year.

In the last year or two, Koulibaly has been regarded as one of the best center-backs in all of Europe, and it has resulted in rumors of an expensive move. The London Evening Standard reports that two bids for Koulibaly from Manchester United have already been rejected, while a third is potentially on its way that would make Koulibaly the most expensive defender in history, passing Liverpool’s capture of Virgil Van Dijk. That move would make sense as Manchester United’s defense has often been the team’s downfall this season, and the club is desperate for a big signing to land major success, with recent expensive captures Fred, Romelu Lukaku, and Paul Pogba all receiving plenty of criticism in their Manchester United tenures so far.

The Evening Standard report says that Koulibaly was on Manchester United’s radar last summer, but the team instead focused on attempts at other defenders, naming Toby AlderweireldHarry Maguire and Jerome Boateng as players Manchester United made runs at instead. Manager Jose Mourinho has been extremely open about his disappointment in United’s failure to bolster its central defensive ranks in recent transfer windows, only adding Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly in the last three years.

While Manchester United certainly won’t be deterred by the CAF’s massive error, the egregious miss still degrades the award’s prestige when clearly deserving players are shunned for bigger names in what has creeped ever closer to becoming nothing more than a popularity contest.

PL Preview: Fulham v. West Ham

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  • Fulham has won 3 of the last 4 games vs West Ham at home
  • West Ham has not won 4 PL games in a row since 2014
  • Fulham has gone 20 PL games without a clean sheet, conceding 51 goals in that span

Fulham begins a critical four-game stretch, sitting bottom of the Premier League table and needing points as they host West Ham at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, live on NBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Whites’ next four matches see them take on the Hammers, followed by games against Newcastle, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Huddersfield Town. They sit in the basement of the standings, but are just four points from safety. Fulham has secured four points in four matches under new manager Claudio Ranieri, but were also thoroughly beaten by both Chelsea and Manchester United, meaning the games against fellow relegation candidates are becoming more and more critical.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa is unavailable after a controversial second yellow card against Manchester United saw him sent for an early shower. Maxime Le Marchand is a big miss for the Whites, out with an undisclosed muscular injury, but that is the extent of their unavailable list as Calum Chambers, Floyd Ayite, Andre Schurrle, and Kevin McDonald are all ready to go, Ranieri confirmed.

Meanwhile, Jack Wilshere will miss his third straight match for West Ham as he recovers from an ankle injury, and Lucas Perez is likely unavailable due to a cut on his foot, but otherwise the Hammers are fully fit as they look for an opportunity to move into the top half of the table.

West Ham was in the bottom third of the table for much of the first few months of the season, but they have climbed to 11th with a run of seven matches that features just one loss. That includes a current three-match winning streak that has seen West Ham drop three relegation candidates in Newcastle, Cardiff City, and Crystal Palace, by a combined 9-3 score. With Fulham up this weekend followed by matches against Watford, Southampton, Burnley, and Brighton, this is the time for the Hammers to pick up a swath of points and brace for a grueling final third of the season.

What they’re saying

Ranieri on Fulham’s lack of a clean sheet this season: “The players are improving a lot with my tactics. It’s normal they need time to understand everything. Sooner or later, we’ll keep a clean sheet – I hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

Pellegrini on playing a team near the bottom: “I said last week, the most stupid thing we can do is to believe that because we are playing against teams near the bottom of the table we will win. We must be very careful, thinking game by game.”

Video Preview

Prediction

While West Ham is playing well, they will be up against a team that knows this four-game stretch is critical. Still, Fulham’s midfield is a complete mess, and they have lots to work on. The defense is a bad matchup for a Hammers side on a roll in front of net. That run will continue, as West Ham wins 3-1 behind another big attacking performance.

Salah named BBC African Player of the Year

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With an incredible 44 goals in 52 games last season, Mohamed Salah was the clear choice for the BBC’s African Player of the Year.

The BBC announced the honor on Friday, with Salah being chosen ahead of Medhi Benatia (Juventus), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Sadio Mane (Liverpool) and Thomas Partey (Atletico Madrid). Salah hasn’t scored quite at the same rate in the second half of 2018, but he’s still managed 13 goals in 25 matches in all competitions. It’s Salah’s second-consecutive year winning the award from the BBC.

“It’s a great feeling to win again. I’m happy and I would like to win it also next year!” Salah said, via the BBC. “There have been many good moments in 2018,” he added. “The game against Roma at Anfield [Champions League semi-final first leg] was unbelievable. I’m scoring goals and helping the team to get the points to be top of the league. That’s always a great feeling.”

Even without Salah scoring nearly a goal a game, he’s helped his side to the top of the Premier League thanks to improved defensive performances.

In addition to his goalscoring for Liverpool, Salah scored the game-winning penalty kick in 2017 to put Egypt into the 2018 World Cup and although the Pharaohs were unable to get out of their group, Salah scored both of his nation’s goals.

Even with the strong work from the other players on the short-list, it will take a lot to unseat Salah for the 2019 award as well. As long as Salah continues scoring at his current rate and Liverpool finishes in the top two in the Premier League – as well as making a deep Champions League run – it’s Salah’s to lose again.