2015 Africa Cup of Nations preview: With champs out, who will win it all?

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Saturday will bring us one of the best under-the-radar tournaments in the world of soccer, as the Africa Cup of Nations begins its three-week run through Equatorial Guinea.

It’s also a tournament which has its fair share of haters. For one thing, like the Asian Cup, it takes African players away from their club teams for a good spell of time. In the Premier League, that means neither Yaya Toure nor Sadio Mane for nearly a month.

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It’s also been in the headlines for the wrong reasons, as Morocco pulled out of its hosting duties due to fears of Ebola.

But at it’s core is free-flowing football that often provides thrilling moments. As you get ready for Saturday, here’s most everything you need to know.

The Champions
There have been 30 AFCON tournaments since 1957, which was won by Egypt and had just four teams contesting the title.

Since then, there have been 16 winners. Here’s the breakdown:

Most wins: Egypt (7)
Closest competitors: Ghana and Cameroon (4)
Reigning champions: Nigeria (did not qualify for this edition)
Biggest-named sides to not have won: Senegal or Mali

The Dates
Group play: Jan. 17 – 28
Quarterfinals: Jan. 31 & Feb. 1
Semifinals: Feb. 4 & 5
Third-place game: Feb. 7
Final: Feb. 8

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The Groups
Group A: Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Congo
Group B: Zambia, Tunisia, Cape Verde, DR Congo
Group C: Ghana, Algeria, South Africa, Senegal
Group D: Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon, Guinea

Well, the sides on Groups C and D have a tall task ahead of them, while teams in the first two groups will like their chances of escaping the group stage.

The Premier Leaguers
source: Getty ImagesThe names you’ll recognize from NBC Sports Soccer coverage of England’s top flight:

Zambia: Emmanuel Mayuka (Southampton)
DR Congo: Youssouf Mulumbu (West Brom), Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace)
Ghana: Kwesi Appiah (Crystal Palace), Christian Atsu (Everton)
Algeria: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City), Nabil Bentaleb (Tottenham)
Senegal: Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham), Mame Diouf (Stoke), Sadio Mane (Southampton), Papiss Cisse (Newcastle)
Ivory Coast: Kolo Toure (Liverpool), Yaya Toure (Manchester City), Wilfried Bony (Manchester City), Cheick Tiote (Newcastle)

Oh, and MLS
– Recently-signed Chicago Fire striker David Accam will represent Ghana.
– Philadelphia’s Rais M’Bolhi is suiting up for Algeria
– NYRB’s Ambroise Oyongo will be in the back for Cameroon

How it might play out

Group A: Not that the bookmakers know anything, but three of these teams are in the bottom four for odds. Burkina Faso makes it through, and Equatorial Guinea uses home-field advantage to slot second.

Group B: It’s up for grabs, really, but Tunisia seems a safe bet to make it out of the group, and we’ll pick one surprise here, as Cape Verde knocks of Zambia to advance.

Group C: Ruling out Algeria after this summer’s World Cup success would be a silly mistake. They get through, joined by Papiss Cisse and Senegal move on as well. They pip a Ghana team still not right after Brazil.

Group D: Given their depth, Ivory Coast will again be favorites to win the tournament despite the fact that they’ve historically underachieved. Still, we see them coming out along with Mali as Cameroon’s massive team turnover from a terrible World Cup (no Alex Song, Samuel Eto’o, Benoit Essou-Ekotto) is bound to se some growing pains.

Quarters: Cape Verde def. Burkina Faso, Tunisia def. Equatorial Guinea, Algeria def. Cameroon, Ivory Coast def. Ghana

Semis: Tunisia def. Cape Verde, Ivory Coast def. Algeria

Final: Ivory Coast def. Tunisia

Coronavirus: Italy may lift ban on sporting events by Monday

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MILAN (AP) The Italian government could lift its ban on sporting events by Monday in areas affected by the coronavirus if the number of cases stabilizes.

The outbreak forced a number of sporting events to be called off throughout the country this past weekend, including four Serie A matches in the north of Italy.

This week, the ban on sporting events was extended from Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont – the areas hardest hit by the outbreak – to also include the regions of Friuli Venezia Giulia, Emilia Romagna and Liguria, until March 1.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

“If, as I hope, the statistics don’t give us different signs then maybe already by Monday these measures won’t be continued,” Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said. “But it’s only Tuesday today and we have to wait and see what happens over the next few days. The health of the Italian citizens is the most important thing.”

Italy reported a 45% increase in the number of coronavirus cases Tuesday, from 222 to 300. Ten people have died, all of them elderly or suffering from other ailments.

“Obviously, I can’t say I’m not worried because I don’t want anyone to think we’re underestimating this emergency,” Premier Giuseppe Conte said before meeting with visiting World Health Organization representatives. “But we trust that with the measures we have implemented, there will be a containing effect in the coming days.”

Italy has closed schools, museums and theaters in the two regions where clusters have formed and troops are enforcing quarantines around 10 towns in Lombardy and the epicenter of the Veneto cluster, Vo’Euganeo.

Serie A matches this weekend are set to be played behind closed doors, including Juventus’ key match against Inter Milan. That game is not only potentially crucial to the title race but also sees the return of former Juventus coach Antonio Conte.

Inter’s Europa League match at home to Ludogorets on Thursday will also take place without any fans allowed in.

Serie C canceled all games in two leagues which have teams in the north. Volleyball and rugby games were also suspended nationwide through next weekend.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation suspended all of its events throughout the country for an entire week, although it said that “for now” next weekend’s World Cup ski races in La Thuile in the Valle d’Aosta region were still set to go ahead. Those races are operated by the International Ski Federation, which has already canceled races this season in China that were slated to test the course for the 2022 Beijing Games.

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

El Tri winger Jurgen Damm headed for MLS this summer

Jurgen Damm
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This season’s Liga MX invasion of MLS continues with Jurgen Damm announcing that he’ll leave UANL Tigres this summer after five years with the club.

TUDN has the destination as Atlanta, though previous reports have linked Damm to the LA Galaxy is the spot.

And MLSSoccer.com scribe Tom Bogert says the Houston Dynamo have his “discovery rights” (which remains the worst concept in the entire league).

Reports emerged over the past 48 hours that the El Tri man was headed for an MLS club.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The 12-times capped winger has one goal for Mexico, but has not been capped since Oct. 2018. He has spent his entire career in Liga MX.

Damm spent the early part of his career with Tecos and Pachuca, but has been with UANL Tigres since 2015.

He won four league titles with UANL, as well as the 2018 Campeones Cup.

Ex-Arsenal man Gnabry: “London’s still red” after Bayern beats Chelsea

Serge Gnabry
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Ex-Arsenal man Serge Gnabry still has love for the club.

Gnabry tweeted that “London is still red” after he scored twice for Bayern Munich in a 3-0 beating of Chelsea on Tuesday in the first leg of a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

This after scoring four times against Spurs in a previous Champions League group stage match and Tweeting that “North London is Red.”

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

So what’s with the London form?

“I’ve got a lot of friends here,” Gnabry said after the game. “A lot of them were in the stands tonight, and it seems they give me a lot of good power.”

Gnabry only scored once during his time in England with Arsenal and West Brom but is a bona fide star in the Bundesliga.

With a three-goal advantage over Chelsea heading to Munich for a second leg, however, he’s not got his head in the clouds.

“Three goals ahead gives us a little bit of confidence, but we need to be prepared for the second leg. We can’t take it not seriously enough. … We’ve seen it last year with Liverpool beating Barcelona, so we have to be careful. We have to go into the second leg with all of our focus.”

Gnabry now has 51 goals and 29 assists in four seasons since returning to Germany from Arsenal. Not terrible production for a player the Gunners offloaded to Werder Bremen for under $6 million in 2016.

What color will London be when Chelsea buys him next year? We kid, we kid…

Champions League preview: Real Madrid renews rivalry with Pep; Lyon hosts Juve

UEFA Champions League preview
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The final two ties of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 begin Wednesday when Manchester City and Juventus head to Spain and France.

The focus for many will be on the former, as City continues to weather UEFA drama while its manager prepares for his fiercest foe as a player and manager.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Pep Guardiola has managed against Real Madrid 17 times and boasts a 9-4-4 record between Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

The Catalan wizard has lost his last three versus Real, two with Bayern and once in his final El Clasico as Barca boss.

Even as Guardiola stresses preparation and plan, he knows there will be bounces and that both teams will have to cope with them.

“We have to be strong, have quality and need to have luck,” he said, via The Manchester Evening News. “At this stage, it’s important but we cannot control that. We can control what we can control and we will see. This competition, last season, against Liverpool, there are decisions. You have to overcome. You need incredible concentration in our game and game plan plus try to be a little lucky.”

Real Madrid living legend Sergio Ramos has earned the ire of Guardiola on plenty of occasions, one of the few things Liverpool and City fans have in common.

Ramos wouldn’t get drawn into rivalry talk, sying the stage somewhat negates the opponent.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Ramos said via the club’s web site. “I think he’s a fantastic coach, with loads of experience, and his numbers speak for themselves. We’re motivated by the Champions League, regardless of the players or coaches who may have been rivals in the past. We’re up for the Champions League and our next task is to beat City. From a personal point of view, I’m just focused on making the next round.”

[ MORE: Key battles for Real-Man City ]

Wednesday’s other match sees a club long linked with Guardiola, as Juventus will play the role of heavy favorites against Lyon.

Maurizio Sarri‘s side is to bidding to win what’s eluded all Juve bosses since Marcello Lippi beat Ajax in 1996. If they succeed, it will be by going down a different path than it’s traveled in recent years.

Here’s Leonardo Bonucci, via Football-Italia:

“What the coach asks of us now is basically the opposite of what the previous coach did,” Bonucci mused. “It was usually individual against individual, now it’s more about organized team movements. Obviously, you need to train consistently to get that down and playing every three days makes it difficult. But we started this journey well aware of the positives it could bring and the difficulties of getting there.”

Lyon has been maddeningly inconsistent this season, sitting seventh in the Ligue 1 table, but has the tools to surprise if Juve doesn’t bring its best. That starts in France on Wednesday.