Richmond Boakye

Spain roundup: Barca, Atletico, Real Madrid all win; Osasuna rises

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It was a weekend for the big boys, and Atletico Madrid‘s hopes for a La Liga title moved even closer after Rudi Garcia’s 14th minute tally pushed the hosts by Villarreal to remain atop the table with 79 points, one more than No. 2 Barcelona.

Speaking of Barca, have you heard of this Lionel Messi fellow? Presumed dead (or at least “just great”) in December, the 26-year-old bagged another two goals as the hosts all-but-condemned Real Betis to the drop. His 15th penalty pen was met by an 86th minute goal to complete the brace. It gives him 10 goals in his last five La Liga matches, which is pretty decent if you’re looking for adjectives.

Real Madrid walked into Anoeta like they owned the place, beating Real Sociedad 4-0 behind goals from four different players. It was 1-0 at half before Gareth Bale, Pepe and Álvaro Morata netted in the second half to complete the win. Sociedad remains six points back of No. 4 Athletic Bilbao, which plays Monday, and three back of No. 5 Sevilla.

Easing concerns over UEFA Champions League second legs, each Top Three club faces a Bottom Six club next week, though only Real Madrid is home. In UCL, Real is on the road with a 3-0 lead on Borussia Dortmund, while Barca heads to Atleti tied at one.

There was an absolutely massive relegation six-pointer at Almeria, where a 32nd minute goal from Arribas (above) would stand as the match-winner as Osasuna picked up an unlikely three points on the road to leap out of the relegation zone, passing the hosts by those three points.

Elsewhere

  • Rayo Vallecano 3-0 Celta Vigo — Bueno lived up to his name with a second-half brace that, upon completion, see teams five points clear of the relegation zone.
  • Valladolid 0-0 Valencia — Scoreless draw does little for the visitors’ hopes for Europe, but the home team will be happy with the point that moves them out of the drop on goal differential.
  • Sevilla 4-1 Espanyol — Kevin Gameiro has his A-game in order, with a brace in the home side’s onslaught of the “other” Barcelona side.
  • Malaga 4-1 Granada— The visitors slipped back toward the drop zone by going down 4-0 before pulling one back in the 78th minute to save a little face in goal differential, which could become crucial.
  • Elche 1-0 Getafe – Richmond Boakye’s 90th minute winner dramatically pulled the home team four points ahead of the visitors, who slipped into the final drop slot.
  • Levante vs. Athletic – Monday

 

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Atlético Madrid 32 25 4 3 70 22 48 14-3-0 11-1-3 79
Barcelona 32 25 3 4 92 26 66 15-0-1 10-3-3 78
Real Madrid 32 24 4 4 90 32 58 13-0-2 11-4-2 76
Athletic 31 16 8 7 53 34 19 11-3-2 5-5-5 56
Sevilla 32 15 8 9 59 47 12 9-3-4 6-5-5 53
Real Sociedad 32 14 8 10 54 48 6 10-3-3 4-5-7 50
Villarreal 32 14 7 11 51 38 13 7-6-3 7-1-8 49
Valencia 32 11 8 13 44 45 -1 8-3-5 3-5-8 41
Levante 31 10 10 11 29 38 -9 5-5-5 5-5-6 40
Espanyol 32 11 7 14 35 40 -5 7-3-6 4-4-8 40
Málaga 32 10 8 14 35 40 -5 6-2-8 4-6-6 38
Rayo Vallecano 32 11 3 18 37 68 -31 7-0-9 4-3-9 36
Celta Vigo 32 10 6 16 34 47 -13 4-6-6 6-0-10 36
Elche 32 8 11 13 26 42 -16 6-6-5 2-5-8 35
Granada 32 10 4 18 29 46 -17 6-1-9 4-3-9 34
Osasuna 32 9 6 17 28 53 -25 5-3-7 4-3-10 33
Valladolid 32 6 13 13 32 50 -18 5-8-3 1-5-10 31
Getafe 32 8 7 17 29 49 -20 4-6-6 4-1-11 31
Almería 32 8 6 18 34 60 -26 5-5-6 3-1-12 30
Betis 32 5 7 20 28 64 -36 4-3-9 1-4-11 22

Ronaldo scores twice, but controversial call allows Real Madrid to salvage 2-1 win at Elche (Video)

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Real Madrid got away with one here. At least, Pepe did, but at the same time, the Portuguese international’s antics saved his team from what would have been a crucial slip. And thanks to the penalty he drew, Real Madrid was able to get out of Elche with a 2-1 win.

That win game via Cristiano Ronaldo’s second goal of the day: a penalty conversion five minutes into stoppage time; beating Manu Herrera into the low left hand corner; scored two minutes after the fourth official had raised “3” on his board. But the “extra” extra time was the result of a dramatic, 92nd equalizer from Richmond Boakye, the 20-year-old Ghanian taking advantage of Real Madrid’s uncharacteristic defensive breakdown to seemingly hand the Merengues their second blemish of the year.

In a league were the title contenders need to shoot for 100 points (and two teams are perfect through six rounds), any draw to a non-contender is huge. That Real Madrid was about to be handed their second draw could have sparked serious debate in Spain. Are los Blancos are capable of keeping up? Or is this last year all over again?

That’s why Pepe’s act, as disappointing and predictably cynical as it was, looms large. On a 95th minute corner, the Real Madrid defender grabbed Carlos Sánchez’s right arm and pulled the Elche midfielder down on top of him. But that’s not how César Muñiz saw it, the match’s referee pointing to the spot ahead of Ronaldo’s decisive conversion. To kind, Pepe was taken to ground on the corner, and while that violation often goes unpunished under normal circumstances, it drew a whistle today.

There’s no way around it. On some level, Real Madrid didn’t deserve this result. Pepe fouled Sánchez, should have been carded himself, but Muñiz misinterprets the play differently. As a result, Real Madrid get the win and stay two points back of Barcelona and Atlético Madrid (both 6-0-0).

The moral element that everybody will discuss: Should Pepe, independent of whether he would get caught, seek to play in such a cynical, deceptive manner. When games are scheduled and teams agree to take part in them, do they accept that matches could be decided in this unfair manner? Or is the intent for the 22 players to try and play within the rules? Or within a reasonable margin of them?

Pepe’s intent clearly defies that. Perhaps it’s a “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” scenario, in which case, Pepe should be applauded for his effort. Or perhaps, in less jaded terms,  players should expect their opponents to do everything possible to get a result. Perhaps Sánchez should have avoided Pepe altogether, given the defender’s reputation for gamesmanship.

Me? I tend to think this kind of variation happens enough, you should expect a couple of weird outcomes like this per season. Is it right? Is it wrong? I’m not sure. It just happens. Every team should expect to be on the wrong end of it occasionally, an explanation that won’t placate Fran Escribá’s team tonight.

Preview: Africa Cup of Nations, Group B

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For the second tournament in a row, Ghana and Mali have been drawn together, the two west African nations finishing in that order at Equatorial Guinea-Gabon 2012. And for the second tournament in a row, the two nations are favored to get out of what appears to be a top-heavy group, one that may be even more uneven than last year’s. Whereas 2012’s group had a decent Guinea side as the quartet’s third wheel, this year’s packet is rounded out by a team that’s never won a Cup game and another that’s making their first appearance since 2004.

But given the way the games line up, one of this packet’s big two could face a make-or-break match on the group’s final day. In that way, a group which looks like one of the tournament’s easiest to pick could send one of CAN’s higher rated sides home after eight days.

GROUP B: Ghana, Mali, Niger, Congo DR

MORE: Previewing Group A (which kicks off Saturday)

GHANA

World rank: 26; CAF rank: 4; Best finish: Champions in 1963, `65, `78, `82.

Along with Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana was one of the co-favorites heading into 2012 yet failed to make the final, their attack again failing them. After a run to the 2010 final that never saw the Black Stars score more than once in a game, Ghana managed only six goals in as many matches in 2012. With only one player in the squad possessing more than five international goals, it’s unclear why this year will be any different.

History: Despite being Africa’s most competitive team at the last two World Cups, Ghana has turned into a relatively passive giant. The Black Stars have no problem making it through qualifying cycles, but at the Cup of Nations, they’ve become a nearly team.

After failing to qualify for the 2004 tournament, Ghana’s made the semifinals of three of the last four tournaments. Yet they’ve only advanced to one final, and they’ve failed to win the competition since 1982. Despite entering each tournament as one of the favorites, the Black Stars haven’t broken through in a generation.

Players: Captain Asamoah Gyan (Al-Ain) is one main (only?) goal scoring threat. While coach James Kwesi Appiah as a wealth of talented midfielders at his disposal, none of Kwadwo Asamoah (Juventus, pictured), Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Udinese), Derek Boateng (Dnipro) or Anthony Annan (Osasuna) offer the attacking prospects of the retired Kevin Prince Boateng and Michael Essien (who, in fairness, hasn’t been a part of the team for three years). Ghana will need goals from young talents like Christian Atsu (Porto), Richmond Boakye (Sassuolo), and Wakaso Mubarak (Espnayol).

The squad would look a lot different had Marseille’s André Ayew (or his younger brother Jordan) been included, but after “Dede” was late reporting to the team, Appiah elected to leave him out of the squad. The result is a team that will likely have to grind out results, though in two pre-tournament friendlies (against Egypt and Tunisia), the Black Stars did manage seven goals.

How they’ll play: The mentality will be more important than the formation. In friendlies, Ghana’s played a three-attacker formation that looks to feature two of the young prospects flanking Gyan; however, against Egypt the team was still reportedly passive after an early Agyemang-Badu goal. More aggression in the second half saw the Black Stars add two more goals. The team went on to put four on Tunisia.

A midfield of Asamoah, Ageymand-Badu and Annan isn’t very creative, by Asamoah has the range of passing to connect with the wide creators Appiah will rely on.

Outlook: It’s difficult to see Ghana doing better than they have in the last three tournaments, and while that would be great for any non-Egypt nation, it will continue to be a disappointment for one of the continent’s titans.

MALI

World rank: 25; CAF rank: 3; Best finish: Runners-up in 1972.

The Eagles beat Ghana in 2012’s third place met and come into the tournament with their highest world ranking in history (a fact that only matters to bloggers looking for section ledes). Because they’ve never qualified for a World Cup, Mali has almost no profile beyond the continent, but with a talented squad that had their first taste of success last year, the Malians are a bona-fide dark horse contender.

History: Despite five semifinals appearances, Mali has been an inconsistent participant for this event. They’ve qualified for only eight of CAF’s 29 championships, though the first time they did so, they made it all the way to 1972’s final.

This year marks their fourth straight Cup appearance, their longest run of consecutive qualifications.

Players: Seydou Keita (Dalian Aernin) is the big star, the captain’s 74 appearances and 20 goals from midfield both squad highs. He’ll play in support of Cheick Diabaté (Bordeaux) and Modibo Maiga (West Ham United) up top, with PSG’s Mohamed Sissoko, a controversial selection, potentially joining him. At the back, Adama Coulibaly (Auxerre), Adama Tamboura (Randers), and Fousseni Diawara (Ajaccio) have a combined 157 international appearances.

How they’ll play: Mali’s capable of playing beautiful soccer, their skill players combining with talented forwards to produce very progressive play when the team starts to move vertically. But the Eagles have typically run hot and cold, often seeming to lack direction or focus. When that happens, they become frustrating and punchless.

Outlook: Opening with Niger helps Mali ease into the tournament, but with Ghana in the second game, Patrice Carteron’s team will have to hit an early stride. The confidence they carry out of that match may be as important as the final score, with Mali possibly advancing regardless of result.

NIGER

World rank: 97; CAF rank: 25; Best finish: Qualified for the 2012 finals.

It can only get better for the Ména, who drew the short straw in a deep group in 2012. They left the tournament without win, having scored only once and never holding a lead. By the time they reached their final game (against Morocco), Niger was already out of the tournament.

History: The result wasn’t that bad considering it was Niger’s first Cup of Nations. In 11 previous attempts, the country had failed to make a continental final, but thanks to South Africa mistakenly playing for draw in their final qualifier against Sierra Leone, Niger qualified for the 2012 championship thanks to a better head-to-head record against the Bafana Bafana and the Leoneans.

Players: Very few of Niger’s squad play outside of Africa, with roughly half the team playing in the country’s 14-team domestic league. Captain Moussa Maâzou (Étoile du Sahel) playing in Tunisia, with William N’Gounou (IF Limhamn Bunkeflo in Sweden) and Amadou Moutari (Le Mans B, France) playing in lower level European leagues. One player (Ismaël Alassane) plays in Kuwait.

How they’ll play: Niger’s squad is much-changed since last tournament’s team. Then, the Ména took mostly players from their domestic league. Now Gernot Rohr’s gone abroad to augment the squad. The selection hints at a 4-4-2 built around Maâzou.

Outlook: They have a better chance at points this year than last, but their prospects to advance are about the same.

source: Getty ImagesCONGO DR

World rank: 101; CAF rank: 27; Best finish: Champions in 1968 and `74.

A recent history of performing below their talent leaves Congo DR with superficially low rankings, but with a smattering of players performing in strong European leagues augmenting a group from former African champion TP Mazembe, Congo has enough weapons to dangerous. Qualifying for their first Cup since 2004, it remains to be seen if the Congolese are just along for the ride, particularly after preparations head coach Claude Le Roy labeled “screwed up” because of player compensation issues.

History: Congo DR (and for a period of time, as Zaire) was one of the continent’s first powers, winning two of the first five tournaments they entered. The program went through a period of insignificance in the 1980s, reemerged in the `90s only to go quite again over the last six years.

Players: Underrated West Bromwich Albion midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu (pictured) is the highest profile player in the squad, but Anderlecht goal scorer Dieumerci Mbokani is not far behind. Other notable names include TP Mazembe striker Trésor Mputu, Freiburg midfielder Cédric Makiadi, Mons wide man Zola Matumona, and Evian defender Cédric Mongongu.

Thirteen of the squad’s 23 players play in the country’s domestic league, with five coming from Mazembe.

How they’ll play: With Mbokani, Mputu, and Lomana LuaLua, this team has a lot of attacking talent. Le Roy seems intent on using them all. With Dioko Kaluyituka and Matumona also capable of scoring goals, the Leopards are can take advantage of any team that fails to make the necessary adjustments.

Outlook: Congo DR can get out of this group. Mali’s preparations have been undermined by injuries, so if Le Roy can lead the Leopards past their own pre-tournament issues, there may be a surprise coming out of Group B. Depending on the result they post against Niger on Thursday, a draw in the group’s final game may be all they need to get through.

SCHEDULE

Sunday, Jan. 20, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Ghana vs. Congo DR
Sunday, Jan. 20, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Mali vs. Niger
Thursday, Jan. 24, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Ghana vs. Mali
Thursday, Jan, 24, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Niger vs. Congo DR
Monday, Jan. 28, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Niger vs. Ghana
Monday, Jan. 28, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Congo DR vs. Mali

Wild guess order of finish:

1. Ghana (9 pts.)
2. Mali (6 pts.)
3. Congo DR (3 pts.)
4. Niger (0 pts.)