Arthur Boka

La Liga season preview, predictions: Can anyone outlast Real Madrid?

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Last season, La Liga closed up shop with its first champion not named Barcelona or Real Madrid since 2004. Manager Diego Simeone led Atletico Madrid to the mountain top, their 90 points enough to outlast the usual names.

But Simeone has lost Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois amongst others in his search to repeat, while both Real and Barca have loaded up in the transfer market (a task especially important to the latter, who won’t be able to make another transfer between the end of this window and January 2016).

[ RELATED: Torres in, Jimenez out for Mexico friendlies vs. Chile, Bolivia ]

La Liga would seem as unbalanced as ever, with 10 teams within 10 points of relegation and no one within 17 points of the ‘Big Three’, but is that an illusion? Who will win the league, who can make a charge and who will go down? Glad you asked…

Relegation battlers: Eibar and Cordoba are both making their first trips through La Liga in a long, long time. In Eibar’s case, it’s the first ever trip to the top flight, while Cordoba last played 42 years ago. Deportivo La Coruna is back after one year in the Segunda Division.

All three will struggle to stay up, but Almeria and Getafe both barely escaped with their safety last season. Can Rayo Vallecano replicated its second half of the 2013/14, and avoid the garbage dump that was the first half? Throw in Elche and Granada, and almost half the teams in the league could go down without qualifying as a major surprise.

source: AP
Can Sevilla improve on Europa League triumph?

The challengers: Athletic Bilbao finished in fourth place, 20 back of the title and 17 back of the third slot, and have not done much to replace the loss of Ander Herrera to Manchester United. Sevilla finished fifth and won the UEFA Europa League, though you get the feeling their place in La Liga would’ve been higher without the focus on winning Europa.

Real Sociedad faces major challenges to replicating its success, as Claudio Bravo, Antoine Griezmann and Haris Seferovic all skipped town, while Valencia made enough intriguing additions to move forward.

If you’re looking for a dark horse, try Malaga. They lost Wily Caballero but ably replaced the Man City-bound keeper with Mexican World Cup star Guillermo Ochoa, while also adding Arthur Boka from Stuttgart, Roberto Rosales from Twente and Luis Alberto on loan from Liverpool. Another dark horse is the aforementioned Rayo Vallecano, which has added Gael Kakuta and Alejandro Pozuelo.

The title tilters: Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti faces the challenge of dealing with an embarrassment of riches after his club picked up James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Keylor Navas to its already jacked lineup (and what if Angel Di Maria doesn’t leave?).

Atletico added Griezmann, Mario Mandzukic and Raul Jimenez, but may end up struggling to stay with Barcelona and Real thanks to the adjustment period. Barcelona will be very strong once Luis Suarez returns from his four-month ban, but also faces a bit of uncertainty as names like Ivan Rakitic, Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen acclimate to the Camp Nou and their teammates learn to live life without Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.

Predicted order of finish (2013/14 finish)
1. Real Madrid (3)
2. Barcelona (2)
3. Sevilla (5)
4. Atletico Madrid (1)
5. Villarreal (6)
6. Valencia (8)
7. Malaga (11)
8. Rayo Vallecano (12)
9. Athletic Bilbao (4)
10. Celta de Vigo (9)
11. Espanyol (14)
12. Levante (10)
13. Real Sociedad (7)
14. Granada (15)
15. Getafe (13)
16. Almeria (17)
17. Cordoba (N/A)
18. Deportivo La Coruna (N/A)
19. Elche (16)
20. Eibar (N/A)

Bony, Gervinho goals see Ivory Coast come back to down Japan, 2-1

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Two goals in 100 seconds during Saturday’s second half saw the Ivory Coast overcome its slow start to claim what could prove a crucial result. Reversing a deficit Japan handed them after 15 minutes, les Elephants earned a 2-1 win at Recife’s Arena Pernambuco, defeating the team that’s expected to be their main competition for a knockout round spot. In the process, the Ivorians joined Colombia at the top of Group C, taking a huge step toward progressing for the first time at a World Cup.

Keisuke Honda gave the Japanese an early lead after he finished from 12 yards out inside Boubacar Barry’s right post. For the next 58 minutes, a Japanese defense that easily receded into its own half tempted the Ivory Coast to break them own. Just after star striker Didier Drogba was introduced, the Ivorians made them pay, with crosses from Serge Aurier in the 64th and 66th minutes allowing Wilfried Bony and Gervinho to claim full points for their star-studed squad.

Group C continues on Tuesday when the Ivory Coast travel to Brasília to face Colombia, who sit alongside the Ivorians atop the group. Later that day, Japan will face Greece in Natal, with each team seeking their first points of the competition.

At the match’s onset, Japan elected to ceded possession to the Ivorians, daring Les Elephants to break down a defense that only engaged once the ball was in the attacking half. Through most of the first half, that approach resulted in a series of turnovers, with poor execution from the Ivorians rewarding Albert Zaccheroni’s conservative approach. It would be 35 minutes before the Ivory Coast put a shot on goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.

In the interim, Japan struck first. After a quick throw-in deep on the left flank the Ivorians off-balance, left back Yuto Nagatomo was able to roll a ball into the area for Keisuke Honda, who had pulled away from the Ivorian defense. Taking a touch to evade Yaya Touré, Honda blasted a shot inside Boubacar Barry’s right post, giving the Ivorian keeper little time to react to the 15th minute opening goal.

As the half progressed, the Ivorians began penetrating Japan’s defense, proving more patient in their buildup as they pushed their opponents deep into the final third. In the 35th minute, that resulted in a long shot from Arthur Boka the Kawashima was forced to parry away – the Ivorians’ first ball on target. Four minutes later, Touré created a chance through the left of the area only to see Gervinho’s shot blocked. Les Elephants would go into halftime scoreless.

The second half initially saw a more aggression from Japan, taking advantage of careless play in the Ivory Coast’s half to generate shots for Makoto Hasebe and Hotaru Yamaguchi. By the hour mark, however, the game resumed its original pose. Though Japan enjoyed spells of position that exposed problems in the Ivorian defense, the team proved willing to regress into two banks of four, showing little urgency to win the ball.

In the 62nd minute, that forced the Ivory Coast to change approach, with Sabri Lamouchi turning to his team’s most famous star. Joining Wilfried Bony up top, Didier Drogba’s inclusion saw the Ivorians leverage the full force of their attacking talents, something that immediately produced a close-range chance in the right of the box.

Two minutes later, the Ivorians had more than a mere chance. They had their equalizer. On a Aurier cross from the right, Bony was able to isolate center back Masato Morishige. Cutting in front of his mark, the Swansea City striker redirected his header past Kawashima, drawing les Elephants even at one.

That scoreline lasted all of two minutes. Off another cross from Aurier, Gervinho headed home from just outside the six yard box, his redirection of a near-post ball bouncing through Kawashima’s hands as the keeper drove to his left post.

Over the match’s final 28 minutes, Japan’s response never came. The Samurai Blue would go the final 70 minutes without a shot on target, with the Ivorians continuing to control possession even after taking the lead.

Though Zaccheroni’s initial plan looked prudent as the Ivorians struggled, his team failed to adjust its opposition was awaken. The Japan we saw at 0-0 and up 1-0 failed to change when they went down 2-1.

The Ivorians, on the other hand, saw their adjustments pay off. Once their famous extra attacker came on, Japan immediately looked light in defense – unable to find the bodies to make all of les Elephants’ stars. Drogba didn’t play a direct part in either goal, but the presence of a second striker helped the Ivory Coast finally get at a suspect Japanese defense.

As a result, a team that reached the final 16 in South Africa lost what could prove their most important match in Brazil. The Ivory Coast, on the other hand, is one step closer to its first knockout round.

Lineups

Ivory Coast: Barry; Aurier, Zokora, Bamba, Boka (Djakpa 75′); Serey (Drogba 62′), Tioté, Touré; Kalou, Bony (Ya Konan 78′), Gervinho

Goals: Bony 64′, Gervinho 66′

Japan: Kawashima; Uchida, Yoshida, Morishige, Nagatomo; Yamaguchi, Hasebe (Endo 54′); Osako (Okubo), Honda, Kagawa (Kakitani 86′); Okazaki

Goals: Honda 15′

At halftime: Keisuke Honda blast has Japan up 1-0 on Ivory Coast (FOLLOW LIVE)

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Story of the half: The Ivory Coast has had the ball, but Japan’s had the chances. Waiting to pressure until play moves into their half, Japan’s been able to couple the Ivorians’ poor execution with key stops and timely fouls, leaving Eiji Kawashima relatively untested in goal.

At the other end, a 15th minute blast by Keisuke Honda inside Boubacar Barry’s right post has proved the difference, but one another chance minutes showed Japan has the execution its opponents lacked. Though the Les Elephants would finish the half with more possession (60) and shots (12-3), Alberto Zaccheroni’s team played most of the first 45 minutes on their terms.

FOLLOW LIVE: Soccerly’s real-time match center

Goals:

15′ – Honda – After allowing the Ivorians to control the ball over the first quarter-hour, quick play from a deep throw-in allowed Japan to generate the game’s first good chance. Turning on a ball rolled in from the flank by Yuto Nagatomo, Honda evaded Yaya Touré and blasted a shot at Barry from near 12 yards out. The Ivorian keeper had almost no time to react before the ball had flexed the back of the next, leaving Japan up, 1-0.

Other key moments:

35′ – Arthur Boka’s blast – For most of the first half, the story was the same. Japan would drop back, engage at about 45 yards out, and see that pressure produce a turnover. Near the half-hour mark, however, that started to change, and off a 35th minute corner kick, the Ivorians finally had their first shot on target. With a heavy left-footed blast from 31 yards out, Boka forced Kawashima to parry the shot just to the right of goal. Had Wilfried Bony’s position not sent the assistant’s flag up, the Ivorians may have had their equalizer.

39′ – Touré breaks through – As the half went on, Touré seemed to figure out how to make his mark. After the Ivorians pushed Japan into their penalty area, Touré would pick his spots to jump into the box, something that nearly produced a chance for Gervinho in the 39th minute. After carrying the ball to the left of goal, Touré’s layoff allowed the Roma attacker to wind up behind a shot. Only a Japan block kept Kawashima from getting involved.

Key players:

  • Yaya Touré, Ivory Coast – This feels like a game Touré would play with Manchester City. Japan is intent on keeping play in front of them. It’s up to Touré to find and exploit a weakness.
  • Eiji Kawashima, Japan – Kawashima was only called on to make two saves in the first half, but at this rate, the second half will prove more difficult. The Ivorians outshot Japan 12-3 over the first 45 minutes. Kawashima should be prepared for more of those shots to find goal.

Numbers to know:

  • Corners: Japan 4, Ivory Coast 3 – They may not have much of the ball, but when they has it, Japan found ways to be dangerous.
  • Blocked shots: Japan 5, Ivory Coast 1 – Instead of blasting away, the Ivorians are going to have to probe.

Question(s) for the second half:

  • When will Didier Drogba come on? This isn’t just about the Ivory Coast’s most famous player. If this keeps up, Les Elephants will need a direct option.