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Senegal, Nigeria win in African Cup qualifying

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Senegal and Nigeria started with wins on the first day of the final stage of qualifying for the 2021 African Cup of Nations on Wednesday.

Senegal was comfortable in a 2-0 victory over Republic of Congo, and Nigeria less so when it came from behind to edge Benin 2-1.

Senegal opened its qualifying campaign less than four months after losing to Algeria in the final of this year’s African Cup in Egypt. Sidy Sarr and Habibou Diallo sealed the win over Congo in Group I with first-half goals. Sadio Mane also played.

Semifinalists at this year’s African Cup, the Nigerians made a fumbling start to the decisive group stage when they went behind in the third minute at home in Uyo to Stephane Sessegnon‘s goal following a defensive error. Victor Osimhen converted a penalty on the brink of halftime and Samuel Kalu scored the winner in the second half to put three-time African champions Nigeria top of Group L.

The result provided some relief for Nigeria head coach Gernot Rohr, whose relationship with the Nigeria Football Federation has become uneasy since failing to make the African Cup final in Egypt.

Cameroon, the 2021 host, was held 0-0 at home by Cape Verde to draw another blank under new coach Toni Conceicao, the second goalless draw in two games under Conceicao. Cameroon has already qualified as host but is playing in qualifying for match practice. The Cameroonians couldn’t find the target again in their Group F opener after a 0-0 draw against Tunisia in the Portuguese coach’s first game in charge a month ago. Conceicao replaced former Netherlands international Clarence Seedorf, who was fired after Cameroon’s title defense at this year’s African Cup in Egypt ended with a round of 16 defeat by Nigeria.

The top two in each group will qualify for the 24-team finals except in Cameroon’s group, where just one other team will make it through. The qualifiers run until November next year.

African champion Algeria starts its campaign on Thursday against Zambia. Egypt plays Kenya the same day and the Pharaohs will be without Mohamed Salah for that game and Monday’s meeting with Comoros, the Egyptian Football Association said, because of an ankle injury. Salah has been wearing a protective boot on his left foot while sitting out training with Egypt.

New coach Hossam el-Badry, a former Egypt player, will take charge of his country in a competitive game for the first time against Kenya as the team moves on from the bitter disappointment of not even making the quarterfinals at their home tournament this year. That failure led to the departure of coach Javier Aguirre and the resignation of the entire EFA board.

There were also wins in Wednesday’s qualifiers for Namibia, Malawi, Sudan, Gambia, Central African Republic and Guinea-Bissau. Sudan provided the most resounding result with a 4-0 rout of 10-man Sao Tome and Principe.

Sierra Leone and Lesotho drew 1-1 in an eventful game in an empty stadium in Freetown. Sierra Leone was ordered by FIFA to play the game behind closed doors as punishment for fans misbehaving in a game against Liberia in September, when they threw objects and invaded the field.

Kwame Quee gave Sierra Leone the lead with 20 minutes to go. Thabantso Jane equalized in injury time and after both teams had a man sent off. Lesotho captain Marepe Basia was given a second yellow for his foul on George Davies in the final 10 minutes. Davies was sent off for retaliating.

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Van Dijk: Liverpool proved ‘everyone is ready’ for decisive December, January

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Liverpool will play as many as 13 more games between now and the end of January — a period which is sure to go a long way toward deciding the fate of their season, including the Premier League title — and superstar defender Virgil Van Dijk insists that Wednesday’s 5-2 thrashing of rivals Everton proved “everyone is ready” to step up and do their part.

[ MORE: Lampard: Pulisic can reach “top level of world football” ]

Manager Jurgen Klopp made five changes to the team that faced Everton, matching the number of goals his side scored. According to Van Dijk, that level of squad rotation was only a preview of what’s the come over the next eight weeks — quotes from the Guardian:

“The players who came into the team don’t play regularly at all. Look at Divock [Origi], [Xherdan] Shaqiri, they did fantastic. We played Adam [Lallana], Milly [James Milner]; everyone is contributing and we need everyone. That is the key message and it is good. The season is very long. This month is very long — January as well — so we need everyone to be ready.

“We have a big squad and everyone is part of what is going on at the moment. Everyone is happy with the situation we are in. And everyone is also feeling responsible as well, ready to play or if you are on the bench. Everyone is part of the success we have and that is the message to everyone and so far, so good.”

Liverpool’s schedule for December and January breaks down as follows: eight games in the PL, one each in the UEFA Champions League, FA Cup and EFL Cup, and up to two in the FIFA Club World Cup. The Reds’ PL fixture against West Ham United was also rescheduled due to their participation in the Club World Cup.

Through 15 games in the PL, Liverpool hold an eight-point lead on second-place Leicester City and an 11-point advantage on third-place and two-time defending champions Manchester City.

Italian newspaper condemned for “Black Friday” headline featuring Lukaku, Smalling

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Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport has been widely condemned after printing the headline “Black Friday” on top of photos of Inter Milan forward Romelu Lukaku and Roma defender Chris Smalling, former Manchester United teammates set to face one another in Serie A action on Friday.

[ MORE: Lampard: Pulisic can reach “top level of world football” ]

The sub-headline went on to read: “Lukaku and Smalling, former teammates at Manchester United and today idols at Inter and Roma, this is the battle within the battle tomorrow with the scudetto and a Champions League place at stake.”

Both clubs were quick to put out statements condemning the newspaper’s coverage.

[ MORE: Ole gushes over “the best performance Rashford has had under me” ]

Per the Guardian, an excerpt of the article which appeared to attempt to highlight Serie A’s problem with racism, saying, “We are all trying to tackle the issue of racism in Italian football,” before making a racially insensitive statement of its own:

“In the faces of those idiots who boo, tomorrow everyone must instead go ‘oooh’ like children. It will be a Black Friday, but this is not an end-of-season sale.” It went on to describe Lukaku and Smalling as “two giants of color.”

This comes less than a week after Serie A’s 20 clubs put out a joint statement “acknowledging a serious problem with racism” in the Italian game, while providing little or no concrete plan for action to rid the game of the very racism they acknowledged.

Lukaku has scored 10 goals in 14 league games since joining Inter this summer and Smalling has become a mainstay for Roma in recent months, scoring twice and leading the defense to a much improved record of goals conceded and five victories in six games.

Orlando City tabs Pareja as new coach

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Oscar Pareja is returning to Major League Soccer for a third stint.

The former Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas coach will now be plying his trade for Orlando City SC, leading Nani and Dom Dwyer as the fourth full-time coach in six MLS seasons.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

A longtime Dallas player and assistant, Pareja led the Rapids to the playoffs in 2013 before leaving for the head job at his former club.

FCD won the Supporters’ Shield and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup under his watch before he left for Club Tijuana in 2018, where he went 23W-4D-21L.

Here’s Pareja, via OrlandoCitySC.com:

“The future of this Club is extremely bright, with so many opportunities to grow and succeed at all levels of the Club – from the new training facility to the world-class stadium and from the Development Academy all the way to the MLS side. Orlando is an incredible soccer city, with an especially passionate and dedicated fan base. I can’t wait to get started.”

Pareja should be a huge asset in developing the club’s top young talents into professionals, but he’s got a lot of work to do in building a competitive roster. Orlando finished eight points out of the playoffs in a league in which making the playoffs isn’t that difficult of a proposition.

PL preview: Arsenal-Brighton; Blades-Newcastle

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The Premier League’s midweek fixture list has two more on the docket, with mid-table positioning at play in South Yorkshire and London.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

Both host sides can advance into sixth with wins, while the visitors will also be dreaming of the top half of the table.

Arsenal v. Brighton and Hove Albion — 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Freddie Ljungberg will have his hands full at home, as Graham Potter‘s Seagulls have been anything but a walkover even in a three-match losing skid versus Manchester United, Leicester City, and Liverpool.

Arsenal, meanwhile, saw its winless run reach eight matches in all competitions with a weekend draw at Norwich City. The Gunners only outshot the Canaries by a 16-15 margin, something that will have Potter daydreaming of ways to break down the sloppy Arsenal defense.

Will Ljungberg finally start Nicolas Pepe?

“Nico is someone who is a very, very good player but sometimes when you come from a different league it takes time to adapt; off the pitch and on the pitch. But Nico is someone I plan on talking to. I’m going to have a little chat with him about what I expect and how I want to play.”

Sounds like no, which is good news for Brighton. #FreeNicolasPepe.

Sheffield United v. Newcastle United — 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold

Chris Wilder‘s remarkable Blades haven’t lost since September, and will like their chances against a Newcastle side which likes to cede possession.

The Magpies are coming off a remarkable 2-2 draw against Man City, though don’t expect Steve Bruce to keep things the same. He has hinted he’ll ring in the changes and trust his squad depth, with Florian Lejeune, Emil Krafth, and Yoshinori Muto among those tipped for opportunity.

“We are going to have to,” Bruce said. “When you look at the games it is a ridiculous schedule. We will have to adapt and need a bit of freshness.”

Newcastle can join its hosts on 19 points with a win, but would likely accept a draw to take them three points clear of 18th place Everton.