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African Cup of Nations: Preview of Group C

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) A look at the teams, key players and coaches in Group C at the African Cup of Nations:

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IVORY COAST

The defending champions are without a couple of big names from two years ago, none bigger than former captain Yaya Toure, who has retired from international soccer. Also, coach Herve Renard, who won with Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015, is now in charge of Morocco. Those two absences mean the Ivorians are not outright favorites like they were last tournament, but it’s still a very good team and a strong contender.

KEY PLAYER: Wilfried Zaha

The 24-year-old Zaha represents the new generation and although he’s only made two appearances for the national team, he’s had a major impact. He set up a goal on debut and scored in his second game, a 3-0 win over Uganda this week. The winger is a former England youth international who switched allegiance back to his country of birth late last year and was immediately called up by Ivory Coast.

COACH: Michel Dussuyer

Dussuyer had the tough task of taking over from Renard, the popular coach who led Ivory Coast to its first continental title in 23 years. Dussuyer’s Ivory Coast was subdued in qualifying and the Frenchman will have to deal with the retirements of the experienced Toure brothers Yaya and Kolo. He still has a large amount of talent to call on.

BEST RESULT: Winner, 1992 and 2015.

CONGO

A big surprise at the last African Cup of Nations when it finished third. Congo was once a power in African soccer with two titles in the 1960s and 1970s, but the team fell on hard times. It’s back now and the 2017 squad has a strong contingent of players in top European leagues. Congo, with unmistakable sky blue shirts and diagonal red stripes, will sorely miss injured Everton winger Yannick Bolassie, though, its most creative player.

KEY PLAYER: Dieudonne Mbokani

Without Bolassie, there’s more pressure on the center forward to ensure Congo scores goals. Mbokani is his country’s top scorer.

COACH: Florent Ibenge

Ibenge is a rarity, a black African coach taking charge of a national team. He’s one of only four black coaches at Africa’s 16-team tournament. Ibenge won praise for the way he led Congo at the African Cup two years ago and coached the country to triumph at last year’s African Nations Championship, the continent’s tournament for home-based players.

BEST RESULT: Winner, 1968 and 1974 (as Zaire).

MOROCCO

Morocco’s hopes took a big hit when midfielders Younes Belhanda, Oussama Tannane and Nordin Amrabat, and now this week forward Sofiane Boufal, were all ruled out with injury, stripping the squad of many of its top players. That seriously reduced its chances of going far, with Morocco struggling at recent African Cups anyway. Not only has Morocco not won a title since 1976, it hasn’t got out of the group stage in its last four African Cups.

KEY PLAYERS: Mehdi Benatia and Nabil Dirar

In the absence of so many stars, it’s now up to Juventus defender Benatia and Monaco midfielder Dirar to hold the team together.

COACH: Herve Renard

Morocco’s biggest asset is its coach. The charismatic Frenchman has had the golden touch at the African Cup recently, taking Zambia to a shock triumph in 2012 and ending Ivory Coast’s long drought to win two out of the last three titles. Renard is bidding to become the first coach in the history of the tournament to win three titles with different teams.

BEST RESULT: Winner, 1976.

TOGO

Togo is expected to struggle at this tournament, even with striker Emmanuel Adebayor back in the squad. Like Morocco, its one saving grace could be its coach, Claude le Roy. He has managed in Africa since 1985, taken teams to eight African Cups, and has reached the quarterfinals seven times.

KEY PLAYER: Emmanuel Adebayor

Adebayor so often represents Togo’s hopes. When he is playing poorly, or arguing with coaches, Togo often loses. When the former Arsenal and Manchester City striker is on form, Togo is a much better, much happier team.

COACH: Claude le Roy

Le Roy has acquired the nickname “White Wizard” in his 30 years managing African teams. Unmistakable with his flowing blonde hair and spectacles, he has a habit of working wonders with less-fancied teams, as he did to take Republic of Congo to the quarterfinals two years ago. Togo will need all of his wisdom.

BEST RESULT: Quarterfinals, 2013.

Barcelona ready to sell six players this summer

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According to the latest news out of Barcelona, the Catalan giants are ready to rework their squad and want to sell up to six players to fuel their transfer plans.

Those players being sold are Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets… just kidding. Of course not.

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According to a report from the Daily Mirror, Barca have made Rafinha, Arturo Vidal, Jean-Clair Todibo, Nelson Semedo, Junior Firpo and Moussa Wague available for permanent transfers. Wague is currently on loan at Nice, while Todibo is on loan at Schalke and Rafinha at Celta Vigo. Ousmane Dembele is another player who has been consistently linked with a move away from the Nou Camp too, as he continues to be hampered by injuries.

Why the huge exodus? It is believed Barcelona want to sign Lautaro Martinez from Inter Milan and Miralem Pjanic from Juventus to spruce up their squad under relatively new manager Quique Setien, who only arrived in mid-January.

It is believed Inter boss Antonio Conte is a big fan of Vidal, but any deal for the Chilean midfielder would reportedly be separate for a deal for Martinez. The Argentine striker has been sensational for the Italian giants so far this season and is said to have been in close contact with Messi about a move to Barcelona.

As for Pjanic’s potential arrival, what does that mean for Ivan Rakitic? He has just one year left on his current Barcelona contract and seems relaxed about his future but Pjanic plays in a very similar position to the Croatian playmaker.

One thing is for sure, Barcelona need to freshen up this squad and there is plenty of transfer news floating around when it comes to ins and outs. They are just ahead of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga and Real have certainly had a huge overhaul over the last 12 months with Vinicius Jr., Eden Hazard, Brahim Diaz, Ferland Mendy, Rodrygo and Luka Jovic all arriving at different times.

Barcelona’s old guard remains intact with Messi, Busquets, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba as instrumental as ever but there’s no doubt Setien will want to strengthen his squad as they aim for Spanish and European glory next season and beyond.

With plenty of talk about Barcelona’s financial situation and the huge contracts that Messi, Suarez and Antoine Griezmann in particular have, offloading this many players suggests they have to cut their cloth accordingly in order to bring in top talent.

Setien will be hoping he can offload as many players as possible reshape this Barcelona squad which is still incredibly talented but has a few glaring needs.

Reports: Premier League clubs want June 17 restart; neutral stadiums possible

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The Premier League is holding in-depth meetings with all 20 clubs on Thursday to determine a potential restart date for the 2019-20 season and June 17 has emerged as the leading contender, although there is plenty to still sort out before then.

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Multiple reports claim that clubs and the league have agreed that from June 17 games can resume, which is five days later than the original placeholder date suggested last month. It has been reported the two games in hand, Man City v. Arsenal and Aston Villa v. Sheffield United, could be played on June 17 so all teams are on 29 games played, then the rest of the games would kick off on June 20.

It is believed that the clubs want the Premier League season to be finished by August 1, so clubs can then focus on the FA Cup and European action in the Europa League and Champions League, while the 2020-21 season can then resume in early September.

Other reports suggest that a sticking point remains neutral stadiums as police forces in the UK want certain high-profile games to be played at neutral stadiums over fears of fans congregating outside home stadiums. However, it is believed the majority of games could be played home and away as normal.

More details will no doubt filter out in the coming hours, while the meeting is also set to discuss the plan for possible curtailment if playing the remaining 92 games of the 2019-20 season is not possible. The schedule for how games will be played will also be discussed, with five games back-to-back on both Saturday and Sunday reported as a possibility.

The third round of COVID-19 testing saw a slight rise in positive tests compared to the last, as a total of 2,752 COVID-19 tests have now been carried out on Premier League players and staff with a total of 12 positive results.

All players and staff at Premier League clubs will be tested twice a week during the strict return to training protocols put in place.

All 20 Premier League clubs have agreed to return to contact training in stage two of the ‘Project Restart’ plan, as the Premier League’s main focus is to agree on a restart date that managers and players can focus on.

Aston Villa boss Dean Smith’s father dies of COVID-19

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Aston Villa manager Dean Smith has lost his father, Ron, who died at the age of 79 after contracting COVID-19.

Ron Smith was a lifelong Aston Villa fan who worked at Villa Park as a steward and passed on his love of the club to Dean and the rest of his family.

The Premier League club released the following statement honoring Smith.

“The Aston Villa Family are saddened to announce that Ron Smith, the father of our current head coach Dean, has passed away at the age of 79.

“Ron, who had recently been living in a care home after being diagnosed with dementia six years ago, contracted coronavirus four weeks ago and after a short spell in hospital passed away with his family at his side.

“A lifelong supporter, Ron was a steward at Villa Park for many years and passed on his love of the club down to his children. As well as being a regular at home games, Ron was also there to witness that greatest of days in May 1982 when Villa lifted the European Cup in Rotterdam.

“The thoughts of everyone at the football club are currently with Dean and his family at this most distressing of times and would kindly ask for the family’s privacy to be respected.”

Dean Smith is a hardcore Aston Villa fan and the fact he joined them midway through last season and got them promoted back to the Premier League via the playoffs was a hugely emotional moment for the former Walsall and Brentford manager.

He has spoken candidly in the past about his close relationship with his father and the impact dementia had on his dad. Last summer Dean Smith revealed this story before he led their beloved Aston Villa to promotion back to the Premier League.

“I went to see my old man on Friday and I managed to get his eyes open for two minutes and I said to him ‘next time you see me I’m going to be a Premier League manager’,” Smith said. “He smiled and nodded, for me that’s enough.”

Man City manager Pep Guardiola lost his mother to the coronavirus pandemic and the Premier League rallied around the Spanish coach. They will do the same for Smith who has lost the man who introduced him to the beautiful game in the first place.

Deeney considers training return after talking with top doctor

Troy Deeney
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Watford captain Troy Deeney is considering a return to training after some of his concerns were allayed by a leading doctor.

Deeney, 31, declined to return to training last week due to fears of spreading the coronavirus to his five-month-old son, who struggles from breathing difficulties.

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He also expressed concerns over how the virus has disproportionately affected the black community.

Deeney stated he never said his absence from training was permanent and that talks with Jonathan Van-Tam, the government’s deputy chief medical officer, have helped him.

From Sky Sports:

“I’m potentially going to go in next week. Even if it’s just to have a conversation. I’ve already been in dialogue with all the players and all the management.”

Deeney also said he received some vile abuse directed at his son following his first comments, which is disgusting but unfortunately not surprising.

Watford is currently outside the Premier League drop zone on goal difference, one of three teams on 27 points. Deeney’s six goals share the team lead with Ismaila Sarr, and the veteran has scored 129 goals in his Hornets career.

Hornets goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes said this week that Watford “cannot afford” to be without the striker and that he believed the environment is very safe. Hopefully all things work out for Deeney and his family.