Cedric Bakambu

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Chinese Super League kicks off season Friday; Bakambu sets record

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At 6:35 a.m. ET Friday, the Chinese Super League will kick off its 15th season.

One team got a big signing over the line just in time. Beijing Guoan has signed Villarreal striker Cedric Bakambu for an African transfer record of $90 million.

[ MORE: Arsenal 0-3 Man City | City’s 3 goals ]

Bakambu joins last season’s ninth place CSL team, bringing 67 goals from his previous four seasons. That includes 12 in 17 for Villarreal this season.

Guangzhou Evergrande won last season’s title by six points over Shanghai SiPG, with Tianjin Quanjian 10 points back of the champs.

What else is new in 2018?

— Dalian Yifang and Beijing Renhe were promoted from China League One, while Yanbian Funde and Liaoning FC were relegated.

Italian manager Fabio Cannavaro left last season’s third place finishers, Tianjin Quanjian, for the reigning champs Guangzhou Evergrande. He takes the place of Luiz Felipe Scolari. Ex-Fiorentina and Basel boss Paulo Sousa takes his place.

— Who are the marquee foreign addition?

  • Hebei China Fortune signed Javier Mascherano (Barcelona) and Hernanes.
  • Dalian Yifang added three: Jose Fonte, Yannick Carrasco, Nicolas Gaitan.
  • Beijing Guoan added Bakambu.
  • Jiangsu Suning signed Gabriel Palotta of Milan, Richmond Boakye.
  • Changchun Yatai signed Danish playmaker Lasse Vibe.
  • Guizhou Hengfeng brings Nikica Jelavic from Beijing Renhe
  • Beijing Renhe signed Augusto Fernandez from Atletico Madrid.
  • Tianjin Teda added Frank Acheampong from Anderlecht

— Who’s still there?

  • Odion Ighalo is at Changchun Yatai
  • Eran Zahavi plays for Guangzhou R&F
  • Renato Augusto and Jonathan Soriano play for Beijing Guoan, with Roger Schmidt the manager.
  • Gervinho and Ezequiel Lavezzi are with Hebei China Fortune, managed by Manuel Pellegrini.
  • Ricardo Vaz Te and Juan Cala play for Henan Jianye
  • Ramires is still with Jiangsu Suning, playing for Fabio Capello.
  • Papiss Cisse and Graziano Pelle play for Shandong Taishan
  • Fredy Guarin and Obafemi Martins suit up with Shanghai Shenhua
  • Hulk and Oscar play for Shanghai SiPG.
  • Axel Witsel, Alexandre Pato, and Anthony Modeste signed with Tianjin Quanjian
  • John Obi Mikel plays for Tianjin Teda.

Transfer rumor roundup: Mahrez to Arsenal, Bakambu in demand

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As Alexandre Lacazette, Lyon, and Arsenal sort out their futures, plenty of other names are making their way through the gossip pages.

One of those is a former Premier League Player of the Year, and he’s being linked with the same destination as Lacazette.

CalcioMercato says Riyad Mahrez is close to a North London transfer, though it offers little in the way of concrete details. The report says Arsene Wenger is ready to make the move for one of Leicester City’s Algerian playmakers, and that it should be announced “soon.” Could the move be a domino that helps Alexis Sanchez in his decision to stay, or Arsenal’s readiness to let him go?

[ MORE: West Brom adds Saints striker ]

West Ham has reportedly seen a $29 million bids turned down by Villarreal and Koln as the Irons aim to pry strikers Cedric Bakambu and Anthony Modeste from their clubs. Modeste, 29, scored a brilliant 25 goals in Bundesliga play last season, improving on his 15-goal 2015-16 campaign.

Bakambu, 26, has five goals in 13 caps for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and has 34 goals in two seasons with the Yellow Submarines. The failed bid is rumored to trigger pursuit from Newcastle United, which is yet to add a new player this season.

Where could West Ham turn in their seemingly eternal search for a star striker? The Mirror claims the Irons could trigger a $17 million release clause in order to bring Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez to London from Bayer Leverkusen.

Three former champs lose in African Cup qualifying’s final round

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Three former champions lost at home at the start of the final round of qualifying for the 2019 African Cup of Nations on Saturday, with Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Zambia all slipping up.

Ivory Coast was beaten by Guinea 3-2 after leading 1-0 and 2-1, Nigeria lost to South Africa 2-0, and Zambia was upset by Mozambique 1-0.

Cameroon, the African champion and host of the next Cup of Nations in 2019, beat Morocco 1-0 with a goal by striker Vincent Aboubakar, the man who scored the winner for Cameroon in this year’s Cup of Nations final.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up versus Mexico? ]

Cameroon has its place at the 2019 tournament guaranteed as host but will still take part in the qualifying competition and collect points from games.

Qualifying comes down to 12 groups of four teams. The group winners and three best second-place teams qualify alongside the host team. If Cameroon wins its group, the second-place team can qualify. If Cameroon finishes second in its group, only the winner qualifies.

Ivory Coast, African champion in 2015, fell to a late winner from Guinea’s Naby Keita after Seydou Doumbia twice gave the Ivorians the lead in Abidjan.

South Africa enjoyed immediate success under new coach Stuart Baxter as he oversaw Bafana Bafana’s first ever competitive win over three-time African champion Nigeria. Second-half goals by Tokelo Rantie and Percy Tau took South Africa to its surprise win in the southern city of Uyo after Nigeria blew a number of good chances in the first 45.

Zambia, African Cup winner in 2012, was undone late on when Stanley Ratifo scored for Mozambique with a shot from a tight angle in the 90th minute.

Madagascar, Malawi, Burundi, Mali, Libya, Sierra Leone, Congo, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau also made winning starts to the group stage.

[ MORE: USMNT-Mexico preview ]

Congo won the battle with neighboring Republic of Congo after a double from Cedric Bakambu.

Two of Burkina Faso’s stars of their run to the semifinals at this year’s Cup of Nations were on target in a 3-1 win over Angola as Aristide Bance scored twice and Bertrand Traore sealed victory.

Uganda’s qualifier in Cape Verde was postponed until Sunday after the Ugandan squad was stranded in Senegal because of technical problems with its airplane.

Ghana and Algeria start their final group campaigns on Sunday, and Tunisia hosts Egypt, the losing finalist at this year’s African Cup.

Europa League in-focus: Liverpool heads to Villarreal

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Liverpool and Villarreal begin their UEFA Europa League semifinal on Thursday with a match-up in Spain.

The Reds will be favored to advance from the tie should they be able to breach a fairly steady Villarreal back line.

Led by backs Victor Ruiz and Mario Gaspar, the Yellow Submarine has allowed less than a goal per La Liga match this season. Gaspar isn’t bashful to join in the attack, either.

[ MORE: 2.Bundesliga side turned down ‘too old’ Vardy ]

But Villarreal finds its joy through Cedric Bakambu. The 25-year-0ld Congolese striker has 12 goals and three assists in La Liga, adding a remarkable 12 more goals in Europa League play. But he’s streaky, now goalless in three matches after scoring 10 in 8.

One of the keys to Liverpool’s success will be their fullbacks treading the line between aggression and reckless pushing forward. Nathaniel Clyne has the ability to make Villarreal’s outside players pay for sloppy play, but has to be sure not to open gaps for the Spanish side’s outside talent.

If Liverpool can manager Bakambu, and that is a significant if, the Reds should find a relatively easy path to the final. Real Madrid controlled Villarreal 3-0 in a recent meeting and while Jurgen Klopp doesn’t have the Reds at Real’s level, his attack could mirror the La Liga giants in some ways.