Cup of Nations: Cote d’Ivoire stay perfect with win over Tunisia

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Either Sabri Lamouchi was hoping to change things up or he was just trying to keep his squad fresh. Regardless, the Cote d’Ivoire coach got the result he sought, one which leaves his team within inches of the quarterfinals at the African Cup of Nations.

With an early goal from winger Gervinho, Les Elephants claimed a 21st minute lead. Last goals from Yaya Touré and Didier Ya Konan gave the Ivorians a 3-0 win and first place in Group D.

It was another Didier, however, who took early headlines. Cote d’Ivoire captain Didier Drogba was on the bench to start this game, and although he came on for the match’s final 23 minutes, the star striker’s unprecedented benching created news before kickoff. While decision was likely a fitness concern, it was still the first time the former Chelsea start had been dropped during his international career.

That wasn’t the only change Lamouchi made. Veteran defender Kolo Touré was left out, as was winger Max Gradel and attacking midfielder Ya Konan (whose late goal came as a substitute). Chieke Tioté, Romaric, Lacina Diarra, and Salomon Kalou got their first starts of the competition. Didier Zokora dropped from midfield into central defense while Yaya Touré moved into an attacking midfield role.

“It doesn’t matter who plays, who doesn’t play,” Kolo Touré said after Les Elephants’ victory. “We want to go back with the trophy.”

The changes produced an early energy, Les Elephants continuously trying to slip the ball behind the Tunisian defense for Gervinho and Kalou cutting in from wide. The tactic led to the team’s first goal when Gervinho caused a turnover, found Diarra in the middle of the penalty area, and then ran onto a backheeled pass before finishing in the top of the Tunisian net.

The game settled after the goal, each side playing out the next hour with few chances to score. Tunisia’s best chance came late in the second half when Saber Khelifa’s volley from near the penalty spot was redirected straight at goalkeeper Boubacar Barry.

Touré’s 87th minute goal finally sealed it for the Ivorians, with Ya Konan’s right-footed finish from 17 yards out giving Group D’s leaders a deceptively decisive result.

“Collectively that was one of our best games,” Salomon Kalou said after the match.

In Wednesday’s highly anticipated match with Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire may only need a draw to clinch Group D. They sit on six points and own head-to-head tiebreakers over both Tunisia and Togo. If Algeria fail to defeat Togo today, Les Elephants will have their group locked up before starting their final game, a just state of a team whom, while imperfect, have looked as good as any in this competition.

Tunisia find themselves in a tougher spot after their decisive loss. It’s unlikely goal difference will help them now, so ahead of a final group match with Togo, they will be hoping for a Sparrow Hawks result today against the Desert Foxes. Get it, and the Tunisians can advance with a victory over Togo. Without it, they may be at the mercy of tiebreakers. At best.

After slow start, Belgium takes care of business against feisty Panama

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All it took was one goal to bring Belgium to life.

Following a frustrating first 45 minutes, in which Belgium put a pair of shots into the side netting and forced saves from Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, Dries Mertens 47th minute goal opened the floodgates, as Belgium went on to defeat Panama, 3-0, Monday afternoon in Sochi.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

But Panama never made it easy for the Belgians. From the opening whistle the CONCACAF nation showed its incredible spirit, chasing down Belgium all across the field and making life incredibly difficult for Belgium attackers Romelu Lukaku, Mertens and Eden Hazard. Hazard was hacked down all over the field, and while he did earn fouls and a few yellow cards were issued to Panamanian players, it was enough to get in Hazard’s head.

Two minutes into the second half, everything changed. A wonderstrike from Mertens opened the game, and forced Panama to attack and try and tie the match, which gave Hazard, de Bruyne and Lukaku more space to operate.

In the heat and humidity of the Sochi summer, Panama’s veteran defense began to tire, allowing de Bruyne the space to deliver a terrific assist to Lukaku in the box, putting Belgium up 2-0 in the 69th minute.

 

Six minutes later, Lukaku was put through on the break, chipping over Penedo to confirm the victory.

With the win, Belgium moves to the top of Group G. Up next for Belgium is Tunisia on Saturday, while Panama takes on England on Sunday.

VIDEO: de Bruyne delivers gorgeous assist on Lukaku goal

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It took a little bit of patience, but Romelu Lukaku finally got on the scoresheet at the 2018 World Cup, thanks to a delicious assist from crosstown club rival Kevin De Bruyne.

The Manchester City playmaker delivered a spectacular outside-of-the-boot cross into the box, where Lukaku’s head met it and guided it towards the far post for Belgium’s second goal of the day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Arsenal close in on Leno; Man City near Jorginho signing, and more

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Arsenal looks like it will have a new man between the pipes for next season.

According to a report from German publication SportBild, Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno will be introduced as an Arsenal player on Tuesday, after a reported $23-29 million transfer fee. The 26-year-old was on Germany’s 35-man pre-World Cup squad, but was one of the last cuts as Joachim Low went with Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Kevin Trapp in Russia.

Leno became the full-time starter for Leverkusen as a 20-year-old, and has held the position of the No. 1 for the last six seasons, earning plenty of Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League experience along the way.

It’s unclear what will happen to current Arsenal No. 1 Petr Cech. The 36-year-old Premier League legend experienced one of his worst seasons in net for Arsenal and he could begin the season as a backup, unless he moves to a new club. He reportedly has a contract through 2019.

Here’s some more transfer rumors from around the Premier League and Europe.

(more…)

VIDEO: Mertens scores wonderstrike for Belgium

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After a frustrating 45 minutes, it took only two minutes for Belgium to finally get on the board, even if it was a goal sprinkled with magic dust.

Off a partially cleared ball on the right side of the box, Belgium attacker Dries Mertens whalloped a shot that arced over Panama (and former LA Galaxy) goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, giving Belgium a 1-0 lead.

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