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2019 Africa Cup of Nations preview, schedule, predictions

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The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Egypt on Friday and for the first time in its history the tournament will be played during the summer months.

It will also be the largest-ever AFCON tournament, with 24 teams competing to be crowned as Champions of Africa.

[ LIVE: Africa Cup of Nations scores

Egypt, the runners up two years ago as they lost to Cameroon in the final, are favorites and will have a huge support on home soil, while Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast will all be favored to make deep runs.

The likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez will lead their respective nations, as plenty of Premier League stars will be strutting their stuff.

Below is everything you need to know ahead of the tournament kicking off on June 21 (the final is in Cairo on July 19) including the full schedule, group stage predictions and which Premier League stars you can keep an eye on in Egypt.


TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE

Group stage

June 21
Group A: Egypt v Zimbabwe – Cairo International Stadium

June 22
Group A: Democratic Republic of Congo v Uganda – Cairo Stadium
Group B: Nigeria v BurundiGuinea v Madagascar – Alexandria Stadium

June 23
Group D: Morocco v Namibia – Al Salam Stadium, Cairo
Group C: Senegal v Tanzania, Kenya v Algeria – 30 June Stadium, Cairo

June 24
Group D: South Africa v Ivory Coast – Al Salam Stadium
Group E: Tunisia v Angola, Mauritania v Mali – Suez Stadium

June 25
Group F: Cameroon v Guinea-Bissau, Ghana v Benin – Ismailia Stadium

June 26
Group B: Nigeria v Guinea – Alexandria Stadium
Group A: Uganda v Zimbabwe, Egypt v DR Congo – Cairo Stadium

June 27
Group B: Madagascar v Burundi – Alexandria Stadium
Group C: Algeria v Senegal, Kenya v Tanzania – June 30 Stadium

June 28
Group E: Tunisia v Mali – Suez Stadium
Group D: Morocco v Ivory Coast, Namibia v South Africa – Al Salam Stadium

June 29
Group E: Mauritania v Angola – Suez Stadium
Group F: Cameroon v Ghana, Benin v Guinea-Bissau – Ismailia Stadium

June 30
Group B: Madagascar v Nigeria, Alexandria Stadium
Group B: Burundi v Guinea – Al Salam Stadium
Group A: Egypt v Uganda – Cairo Stadium
Group A: Zimbabwe v DR Congo – June 30 Stadium

July 1
Group D: South Africa v Morocco – Al Salam Stadium
Group D: Namibia v Ivory Coast – June 30 Stadium
Group C: Kenya v Senegal – June 30 Stadium
Group C: Tanzania v Algeria – Al Salam Stadium

July 2
Group F: Benin v Cameroon – Ismailia Stadium
Group F: Guinea-Bissau v Ghana, Suez Stadium
Group E: Mauritania v Tunisia – Suez Stadium
Group E: Angola v Mali – Ismailia Stadium

Round of 16

July 5
Match 41: Group D winners v 3rd Group B/E/F – Al Salam Stadium
Match 38: Group A runners-up v Group C runners-up – Cairo Stadium

July 6
Match 42: Group B runners-up v Group F runners-up – Alexandria Stadium
Match 39: Group A winners v 3rd Group C/D/E – Cairo Stadium

July 7
Match 37: Group B winners v 3rd Group A/C/D – Alexandria Stadium
Match 40: Group C winners v 3rd Group A/B/F – June 30 Stadium

July 8
Match 43: Group E winners v Group D runners-up – Suez Stadium
Match 44: Group F winners v Group E runners-up – Ismailia Stadium

Quarterfinals

July 10
Match 45: Winners match 38 v Winners 41 – June 30 Stadium
Match 48: Winners 42 v Winners 39 – Cairo Stadium

July 11
Match 47: Winners 43 v Winners 40 – Suez Stadium
Match 46: Winners 37 v Winners 44 – Al Salam Stadium

Semifinals

July 14
Match 49: Winners 45 v Winners 46 – June 30 Stadium
Match 50: Winners 47 v Winners 48 – Cairo Stadium

Third-place

July 17
Match 51: Losing semifinalists – Al Salam Stadium

Final

July 19
Match 52: Winning semifinalists – Cairo Stadium


PREMIER LEAGUE STARS TO WATCH

Mohamed Salah (Egypt)

Sadio Mane (Senegal)

Wilfried Ndidi (Nigeria)

Idrissa Gueye (Senegal)

Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)

Victor Wanyama (Kenya)

Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast)


PREDICTIONS

Group A
1. Egypt
2. DR Congo
3. Uganda
4. Zimbabwe

Group B
1. Nigeria
2. Guinea
3. Burundi
4. Madagascar

Group C
1. Senegal
2. Algeria
3. Kenya
4. Tanzania

Group D
1. Ivory Coast
2. Morocco
3. South Coast
4. Namibia

Group E
1. Tunisia
2. Mali
3. Mauritania
4. Angola

Group F
1. Ghana
2. Cameroon
3. Benin
4. Guinea-Bissau

Bruce explains taking wheel at wobbly Newcastle United

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Steve Bruce didn’t have it in him to turn down his boyhood club again.

The well-traveled manager and Manchester United legend has taken the reins at combustible Newcastle United after Rafa Benitez walked away from the club this summer.

[ MORE: Sturridge punished ]

Bruce was Sheffield Wednesday manager when that happened, but simply could not resist the lure of managing at St. James’ Park.

He’s also quite confident in his abilities. From The Chronicle:

“I know in some people’s eyes, I’m not Rafa and I know there are big shoes to fill but believe me, I’ll give it everything I possibly can and hopefully I prove the doubters wrong.”

Bruce certainly does not have Benitez’s resume, but has had success in lower leagues. He’s led Birmingham City and Hull City to a pair of promotions each.

If Newcastle backs him as rumored, he may be able to have one of his better Premier League seasons, but his being backed is a wobbly proposition at best (The club is being linked with monster Hoffenheim forward Joelinton).

Bruce knows things have been largely poor at Newcastle United under owner Mike Ashley, and that the club could be taken over by new owners with different ambitions for their manager’s position.

But, again, this is the club he’s supported since he was a boy.

“As I said the easy thing would to have been to say no but I just hope that people show the respect which you obviously only gain by getting results and doing the job, but hopefully that will go hand in hand.”

It’s another Zlatan day, as Galaxy star rips Vela, talks Area 51

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic took a shot at his rivals and his league in one fell swoop.

Perhaps Major League Soccer’s hit is down to proximity and not intent, but the LA Galaxy star certainly didn’t disguise his feelings when asked whether LAFC star Carlos Vela is the best player in the league.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Vela, 30, has lit MLS on fire to the tune of 19 goals and eight assists in 19 matches, driving the second-year squad to the top of the Western Conference.

Zlatan and the Galaxy’s seasons have trailed behind, relatively speaking. The third-place Galaxy are 12 points behind LAFC, with Ibrahimovic contributing 13 goals and three assists in three fewer games.

“29, he’s playing in MLS and he’s in his prime. When I was 29, where was I?”

Herculez Gomez replies that Ibrahimovic was in Europe (Vela turned 30 in March. At 29, Ibrahimovic scored 21 goals in 41 appearances for AC Milan, on loan from Barcelona. At 30, he scored 35 in 44 for Milan).

“Big difference, exactly.”

Vela, for what it’s worth, spent 2005-17 in Europe. Anyway, here is the exchange.

But wait, there’s more.

Zlatan was also quizzed on Area 51 while in a scrum. For those who may not know, Area 51 is a classified United States military facility in Nevada which has long been speculated as the home of extraterrestrial testing and scientific experimentation.

He doesn’t need to worry about going there, because he has his own Area 51 and there is only one Zlatan.

Who will make Ballon d’Or final three?

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When Luka Modric won the Ballon d’Or last summer, marking the first victor neither named Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo since 2007, it threatened to signal a new era for the trophy in more ways than one.

Ronaldo didn’t win the honors, finishing second, but Messi was inexplicably left off the final ballot altogether.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Could this be the year that neither makes the top three? Probably not, but it could be the first time Ronaldo fails to make the list since Barca swept the honors Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi in 2010.

So while most of us are not thinking of the award right now, Ronaldo has it on his brain. It’s no surprise that Marca, known for its backing of Real Madrid royalty, has thrown his name in the mix as a “favorite” given his scudetto with Juventus. That it mentions his performance in the UEFA Nations League is a little goofy — it was a two-match summer — but such is life.

Ronaldo and Messi are deadlocked on five Ballons d’Or, the most ever, and Messi’s year was superior to his longtime rival. Both won their leagues and Messi did not claim domestic honors at the Copa America — in fact he was not his phenomenal self — but Messi scored 12 goals in 10 Champions League appearances before Liverpool stunned Barcelona prior to the final (Ronaldo’s Juve lost to Ajax).

Marca proffers this “I don’t care but obviously I very much care” from CR7:

“I don’t live with an obsession about awards,” Ronaldo explained. “My numbers don’t lie, this year I’ve won three titles and I’ve been good in the Nations League. What else can I do?”

Ronaldo, it should be noted, was still incredible last season. He scored all three goals as Juventus erased a 2-0 first leg deficit in the UCL Round of 16 versus old rivals Atletico Madrid, then scored in both legs of the side’s exit via Ajax. And he likely would’ve won the top scorer’s prize in Italy had he not missed six matches through injury and rest.

Messi again breached the half-century mark in goals, scoring 51 times in all competitions for Barcelona. He chipped in 22 assists and also missed six matches between the UCL and La Liga.

Are there three players who could surpass both to make a new final three?

It would be stunning if Liverpool and Netherlands center back Virgil Van Dijk was kept off the top three, while Sadio Mane may have a Champions League crown and Africa Cup of Nations victory. And you can follow the Luka Modric logic to a land where treble- and Nations League-winning Bernardo Silva is in the discussion (Raheem Sterling was also great).

Kylian Mbappe had probably the best-looking season on Earth, scoring 39 times with 17 assists in 43 matches and navigating the attention that came with Neymar’s long-term absence by shouldering the burden to great success. We made the argument that his 19 goals and six assists in 23 Neymar-free matches is one of the prime reasons he’s be worth almost any transfer fee.

Also remember that the odds of the captains of international teams having enough ballots without Ronaldo and/or Messi named is very difficult to imagine.

Still, Messi, Mbappe, and Van Dijk seems like the final three to us. What do you think?

LIVE — UEL second legs will determine possible Wolves opponents

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Wolverhampton Wanderers will find out its first Europa League opponent on Friday, and the field will be winnowed with a bevy of second qualifying round second legs on Thursday.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

Malmo, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Rangers, Legia Warsaw, and Hajduk Split are the biggest names in play on Thursday, with only the Polish side failing to hold an advantage after the first leg.

American forward Romain Gall is in the mix for Malmo, though he’s been an unused sub of late for the Swedish powers. That could change today, with Malmo in Northern Ireland with a 7-0 advantage over Ballymena United.

You can follow the dozens of ties by clicking the link above.