This Weekend (31/01/15)

Wow!! What a way to bring back the Bundesliga, a huge defeat for defending champions Bayern Munich ushered in the resumption of the league of the World Champions. It was quite obvious that Bayern were still on holiday and Wolfsburg were all business like. As usual we will take a trip through Europe’s top leagues and preview the games that really matter.

 

Barcelona v Villareal

With all due respect to the yellow submarine; when talking about the inform team of La Liga, you more often than not would look at the top three of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid; or worst still consider Sevilla or Valencia, however Villareal are surprisingly the in form team in La Liga with an undefeated streak currently at ten La Liga games with six clean sheets from their last eight games. This makes very impressive reading but they come against the potent force that is the trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Saurez; who seem to be building a very good understanding of each other as each game passes bye, the intense pressure they put on defenses, pulling defenders all over the place should start been a worrying factor for many managers.

Cheryshev

Barcelona came out of their two game Copa Del Rey battle with Atletico unscratched with their reputation enhanced considerably as they were able to cope with the physical battle that comes with games against Diego Simeone’s side. The Catalans have a great record against Villareal and should potentially win this comfortably; this is not to say Villareal would not put up a fight; but a record of seven wins out of their last eight matches makes Barcelona overwhelming favorites.

My Verdict: Barcelona to win comfortably

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Chelsea v Manchester City

I think its important I make this clear for starters that the game between these two teams today will not decide the destination of the title. We are still in January, 16 more games still to play, points to drop along the way, injuries and suspensions to cater for and of cause the odd conspiracy theory to hatch; we are still some way from a title decider.

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Chelsea have been imperious at home this season, the hallmark of Jose Mourinho’s teams with 10 straight wins at home this season in the league coupled with its defensive solidity; however the mid week 120 minutes game against Liverpool may take its toll on some Chelsea players as injuries to the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Ivanovic add to that the suspension of Chelsea; Top Scorer Diego Costa for three games should obviously have them worried. However, Man City  just like Chelsea also got dumped out of the FA Cup last week and continue to look like a side that cannot survive without Yaya Toure, who seem to one personally driving the citizens forward and in his absence Manchester City have look lethargic and out of sorts.

Manchester City seemed to have Chelsea within their sights, all of a sudden the eight point gap disappeared; that can be attributed to Toure’s absence and a dramatic loss of form. Manchester City have an enviable away record as well, undefeated in their last six games. If City need to make a statement its now and of course can Frank Lampard do it again against his old club.

My Verdict: The game looks more like a draw to me

Monaco v Lyon

A lot of credit has to go to Hubert Fournier with the work he is doing with youngsters in Lyon; a major catalyst of this success is Ligue 1 Top Scorer; Alexandre Lacazette, who leads the charts with 21 goals this season. Lyon, use the youthful exuberance of their squad to full effect, playing with plenty of industry, efficiency and energy.

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Monaco, on the other hand have turned the corner especially after a poor start and the loss of their top players in the summer. The team from the Principality have not played spectacularly but have been efficient in grinding out results with so many 0ne nil wins that has propelled them closer to the top of the table and just nine points off Lyon with defensive solidity the current hallmark of the team. Monaco have conceded less than three goals in the league since November and are also yet to concede in 2015 and you wouldn’t believe it if I told you Ricardo Carvalho marshals the defense.

Monaco look like the team capable of throwing a spanner to the Lyon title chasing wheel; especially as Lyon will be missing its top scorer; Lacazette; but Lyon have won their last seven matches keeping a clean sheet in their last five; showing that they can be solid defensively. Its all about the fine margins here; with Monaco edging it in the head to head between both sides

My Verdict: Leonardo Jardim has built a solid defensive unit in Monaco, this will get them the victory against Lyon.

 

Bayer Leverkusen v Borussia Dortmund

The Bundesliga is back to the delight of so many; but no one would have predicted that start. How did Bayern lose scandalously to Wolfsburg? Well that’s a topic for another day. If there ever was a team that needed that winter break so bad; it was Dortmund. The former champions were absolutely shambolic to say the least in the first half of the season and needed  to badly recharge their batteries.

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The same problems still persist with Dortmund despite the winter break; injuries to key players remain a problem and their top players are always in the news; linked to any of Europe’s bigger clubs. It is a big problem to have; but Klopp has gone into the market to freshen up his side; hopefully it would have the desired effect.

Bayer Leverkusen have a chance to reduce the gap between itself and the top two has Wolfsburg did the whole of Germany a huge favour with their victory over Bayern. Leverkusen must have focus on been difficult to beat as well as defensive solidity during the winter break; so we expect this to be an intense and highly competitive encounter between both sides.

Dortmund despite losing seven of their last eight away games; actually have a great record against Leverkusen away from home; without defeat in their last seven visits to the Bayer Arena. Leverkusen on the other hand, are undefeated in their last thirteen home games in the Bundesliga; the stats point to an absolute cracker of a game here.

My Verdict: A draw looks like the more likely outcome.

So there we go; expect some thrilling football and some potentially controversial decisions.

 

AFCON 2015 TEAM-BY-TEAM GUIDE – GROUP D

Ivory Coast – Fifa ranking: 28 – ACN best: Winners 1992

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The Ivorians are desirous of a silverware and they just might get it this time around, the last and only time they won the trophy was in Senegal 1992 despite boasting some of the finest African players of the modern era, the Elephants have significantly underachieved in both the World Cup and the AFCON. Looking at this group, they have as good a chance as ever. They have some of the greatest firepower available on the continent in the likes of Wilfried Bony, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou and Yaya Toure, who was recently named African Footballer of the Year for 2014. The quality names in the squad is a plus for new coach Hervé Renard but he’s got some defensive troubles to worry about as they get set for their first game. The Elephants have conceded the most goals out of any side that has qualified for the tournament and they will want to keep in tight.

Mali – Fifa ranking: 50 – ACN best: Runnersup 1972

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Mali have two consecutive Africa Cup of Nations third-place finishes to their names. Henryk Kasperczak’s side is a physical one who don’t concede a lot of goals and look to score via set-pieces. Seydou Keita may well still be turning it on for the Eagles but aside from the veteran skipper there are few men in the Mali squad who can do well in this tourney, Metz striker Modibo Maiga will be key.

Cameroon – Fifa ranking: 42 – ACN best: Winners 1984, ’88, 2000, 2002

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Coach Volker Finke should be bestowed vast amounts of credit for the way he has restructured his Cameroon side. After a shambolic display in Brazil, the German caretaker has put his faith in youth, turning to the likes of Clinton N’Jie and Vincent Aboubakar in attack. The move has proved intelligent as Cameroon retained their defensive rigidity, but now also boast a dynamic attack. Cameroon may not be stocked with the wealth of talent they enjoyed in the 1980s and 90s but Volker Finke will still be confident of taking the Indomitable Lions into the knockout phase at the very least. Stephane Mbia dons the armband for his country these days while they will look to strikers Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Vincent Aboubakar for goals.

Guinea – Fifa ranking: 39 – ACN best: Runnersup 1976

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Their qualification story is a very brave and praiseworthy one, Guinea deserve a lot of respect for the mental resilience they showed during qualifiers. The country was banned from hosting matches in their own country due to the Ebola outbreak, but nevertheless earned their qualification after holding off Togo and Uganda. The striking trio of Seydouba Soumah, Idrissa Sylla, and Ibrahima Traore are particularly potent.
They are clear outsiders no doubt but they have some exciting players who can effectively cause an upset. Ismael Bangoura didn’t make the final 23 squad, they will bank on the exoperience of Kamil Zayatte and coach Michel Dussuyer has also picked more teenagers for this tourney.

Fixtures

20 January 2015 – Ivory Coast v Guinea (Malabo) | Mali v Cameroon (Malabo)

24 January 2015 – Ivory Coast v Mali (Malabo) | Cameroon v Guinea (Malabo)

28 January 2015 – Cameroon v Ivory Coast (Malabo) | Guinea v Mali (Mongomo)

HalftimeNG Prediction: Cameroon and Ivory Coast

AFCON 2015 TEAM-BY-TEAM GUIDE – GROUP B

Zambia – Fifa ranking: 46 – ACN best: Winners 2012

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The core of the 2012 team is still in the current squad and they continued their run of consistency by qualifying for their fourth consecutive Africa Cup of Nations. Coach Honour Janza who claims he is honoured to be handling this team is looking at fresher prospects this year. Talents such as Ronald Kampamba and Evans Kangwa can add vitality to a Chipolopolo attack, while Emmanuel Mayuka looks to be the only experienced “Goto-Man”. In this group, they have been dubbed as outsiders but they will be looking to prove bookmakers wrong.

Tunisia – Fifa ranking: 22 – ACN best: Winners 2004

African Cup of Nations: Tunisia v Morocco

Since taking over a litle over a year ago, Coach Georges Leekens has effected a remarkable twelve-month turnaround for the Carthage Eagles. Leekens seem to have found the crux of this team and has instilled a solid approach that births victory. Champions 11 years ago, their preparations have been hit by a last-minute striker shortage. Edem Rjaibi and Ahmed Akaichi have come in to replace injured Fakhreddine Ben Youssef and Saber Khalifa, who both suffered muscle injuries but the North Africans are still one of the tournament favourites. They have much quality their squad, star player is Jamel Saihi and they came through qualification unbeaten in a group that included fellow finalists Senegal and Egypt.

Cape Verde – Fifa ranking: 40 – ACN best: Quarterfinals 2013

CapeVerde1-Getty

Cape Verde were the surprise package of the 2013 AFCON, they finished top of Group F and were the first team to qualify for the 2015 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. Look for Lille striker Ryan Mendes to have a particularly good tournament. I won’t be surprised this time if the Islanders make it at least that far this time with manager Rui Aguas banking on the likes of 26-year old midfielder Heldon Ramos – who was a revelation in 2013 and the striking force of Ryan Mendes and Ze Luis.

DR Congo – Fifa ranking: 56 – ACN best: Winners 1968, 1974

DR-Congo-National-Football-Team

Florent Ibenge’s side qualified luckily for this tourney as the best third-place side during the qualification campaign. They also have good players in Jeremy Bokila and Yannick Bolasie who will always provide an attacking threat to their opponents. DR Congo won the inaugural AFCON tournament and a victory over tournament favourites Ivory Coast in qualifying is proof of their ability to stun any team, so don’t rule them out of qualifying from this group.

Fixtures:
18 January 2015 – Zambia v DR Congo (Ebebiyin) | Tunisia v Cape Verde Islands (Ebebiyin)
22 January 2015 – Zambia v Tunisia (Ebebiyin) | Cape Verde Islands v DR Congo (Ebebiyin)
26 January 2015 – Cape Verde Islands v Zambia (Ebebiyin) | DR Congo v Tunisia (Bata)

HalftimeNG Prediction: Tunisia and Cape Verde Islands

African Nations Cup 2015 (My Preview)

The African Nations Cup 2015 in Equatorial Guinea kicks off in a matter of hours and majority of the attention is on the scourge of Ebola. A competition that threatened to evaporate over the health concerns would finally kick off amongst the same fears. Morocco were kicked out of the tournament by CAF for strong arming them into postponing the showpiece event. Step in Equatorial Guinea and step in relief, many fans would not have contained their anger should the tournament have been moved.

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For many Nigerians, motivation isn’t at its peak due to the Super Eagles failure to qualify as defending champions. Truth be told one thing is certain come February we would have new champions of Africa. It a shame really but it shouldn’t come as a shock. Much internal ramblings that led to the coach Stephen Keshi being fired by the NFF and then re-instated by the President of the Nation was maybe an insight into the turmoil that gulfed Nigerian football. The next time they would compete on the continent would be in 2017…..if they qualify.

The best 16 teams would do battle for the ultimate prize as well as the continent’s best players. Newly crowned African player of the year Yaya Toure would be looking to lead, what might be a last charge for this golden generation of Ivorian stars, to the title for the first time in over two decades. Top ranked Algeria, who are in the world’s top 20, must ensure their performance at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil was no fluke and unleash their best players on the tournament.

GROUP A.

AFCON GROUP A

Well maybe we could call them defending runners-up of the Nation Cup or not but Burkina Faso come into this competition with a lot more expected from them than the last time out. They are paired alongside host Equatorial Guinea, 2012 co-host Gabon and Congo who knocked out Nigeria. Over the last few years we have seen an emergence of stars from the Burkinabes and those players would look to go one further than the last time. Paul Putt has a well-structured team and with top scorer in the whole of qualifying Jonathan Pitroipa, he has a player who can lead the attack and get them the goals needed. Gabon were paired and finished above Burkina Faso in qualifying and that should give them massive confidence against the best side in the group on paper.

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For Equatorial Guinea the chance to host the tournament also brought with it the chance to play in it. They had long been ousted from the qualifying process. Hosting a competition does wonders for a team’s confidence (ask South Africa who hosted in 1996) and Equatorial Guinea would aim to capitalise on that. Congo became the first team in 33 years to win a qualifying match in Nigeria and with Coach Claude Le Roy are the dark horses in the group.

GROUP B

afcon group b

Former Champions Tunisia and Zambia are in this group with recent new comers Cape Verde and DR Congo. Zambia won the tournament in 2012 but their reign lasted only a year due to the re-organization by CAF of the year in which the tournament takes place. Captain and top scorer Christopher Katongo would sit out this one as coach Honor Janza fields a young and new team. Only eight players from their triumph in 2012 are in this squad. Experience is key for the coach who was assistant to Herve Renard when the team lifted the trophy.

Cape Verde's coach Luís Antunes

Tunisia probably qualified through the toughest group to get here, edging Senegal and Egypt along the way. The Cartage Eagles have been in fine form and memories of 2004 linger in the squad to perhaps nudge them towards the trophy again. Cape Verde are the dark horses after impressing on their debut two years ago. An excellent blend of skilful football and a young coach in Luis Antunes can inspire the team past the group stages again. DR Congo are a team filled with stars from the TP Mazembe side, none more than goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba who should his team score again would get into that bum-bouncing celebration he made famous at the Club World Cup a couple of years ago. Experience is key for this team with Coach Florent Ibenge, who was an assistant to Claude Le Roy and also coach of CAF Champions league finalist AS Vita, providing that at the highest level. Certainly no team can be written off in this one.

GROUP C

afcon group c

This is the ultimate group of death, comprising of Ghana, Algeria, South Africa and Senegal. Algeria should be the favourites to progress but North African teams always struggles south of the sahara due to the heat and conditions, that might prove to be a stumbling block latter on in the competition. South Africa have been rejuvenated under coach Shakes Mashaba, playing an exciting brand of football. They have finally qualified for a tournament whilst not hosting it and in doing so not losing a single game against Nigeria in qualifying, which at a point was deemed impossible. Youth is on their side coupled with an experienced manager but they would have to be dark horses in this one behind Ghana and Algeria.

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Ghana have won the competiton four times in their history but not since the 1980s, star player Asamoah Gyan would want to do so before he hangs up his boots on the international scene. Controversial players Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari have been left out of the squad as well as Qwadwo Asamoah due to injury. It would be Coach Avram Grant’s first chance to test his ability on the African continent. Senegal have always flattered to deceive only making the final of the showpiece once when they had an array of stars including El-hadji Diouf. They have had similar stars over the last few years but have still not lived up to our expectations. This competition shouldn’t be any different for them more so giving the group they find themselves in.

GROUP D

afcon group d

 

Also a very tough group Cameroun find themselves facing up to arch rival Ivory Coast again. Having met in qualify the Indomitable Lions must be confident of their chances against another team who has failed to live up to its name in the competition over the years. Cameroun defeated the Elephants and all their stars a resounding 4-1 in Yahounde during qualifying. It’s probably the last chance for Yaya Toure and the likes to get their hands on that trophy. Not much is needed to be said about Ivory Coast, they have a manager who has won the tournament before in Herve Renard and players who have won major trophies in Europe, nothing but a victory here would suffice.

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Mali and Guinea are both dark horses although their chances appear slim at best. Mali after reaching the semi-final last time out must push their old legs to take them as far as possible. Guinea probably should be given real credit for qualifying for the tournament despite playing all their home matches in Morocco away from their fans.

Bottom line, there might be many stars of African football missing at this show piece and some big teams but never has there been an opportunity for us to welcome new stars unto the global stage than now. You might just see many of this players dawning the shirt of your favourite teams across Europe come the summer.

AFCON 2015 TEAM-BY-TEAM GUIDE – GROUP C

Group C produced the last winners (Nigeria) at the last tourney, this group sure looks like it will produce this year’s winners. 

Algeria – Fifa ranking: 18 – ACN best: Winners 1990 – Nickname: Desert Warriors

Algeria's national soccer team players celebrate after the match against Russia at the 2014 World Cup Group H soccer match at the Baixada arena in Curitiba

Rightly dubbed as the group of death especially when it is seen that all the teams in this group are former winners. Starting with Africa’s number 1 team – Algeria have been impressive lately on the international scene and their clubsides have done brilliantly well in inter-clubs competition. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic guided them to the knockout rounds for the first time at the World Cup in Brazil last year narrowly losing to Germany – the eventual winners. A new manager in Christian Gourcuff has taken charge and if they continue with such a high-level performance in Equatorial Guinea, it might just be enough to see them take home the trophy. With experienced and quality players like Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli and Sporting Lisbon’s striker, Islam Slimani, skipper Madjid Bougherra and Djamel Mesbah, their chances in this tourney is by no means limited.

Ghana – Fifa ranking: 37 – ACN best: Winners in 1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982 – Nickname: Black Stars

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One of the favourites are Ghana but it wasn’t an easy ride for the Black Stars during the qualifiers even though they still managed to finish top of Group E. Some unconvincing displays by the team that probably led to the appointment of Isreali coach, Avram Grant. They can still look up to players like Asamoah Gyan – who is currently suffering from a knock but his experience in this tourney will be very much needed, Andre Ayew and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu to lead them out of this tough exciting group.

Senegal – Fifa rankings: 35 – ACN Best: Runners-up in 2002 – Nickname – Teranga Lions

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Finished as runners-up in a tough qualifying group that houses two North African teams with Tunisia topping the group and Egypt missing out. Impressive during the qualifiers and fortunately for the Nation, their big players are up and running pretty well with their respective clubsides. Algeria and Ghana no doubt will be given a good run for their money by the Alain Giresse tutored side. With interesting players like Cheikhou Kouyate, Alfred Ndiaye, Mame Birame Diouf, Moussa Sow and Papiss Demba Cisse, you can’t rule them out of qualifying from this group.

South Africa – Fifa rankings: 52 – ACN Best: Winners 1996 – Nickname – Bafana Bafana

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There will be no time for teams to get comfortable in this group, with every point key given the competitive nature of the competition, and the opening game of the pool on January 19 could well prove to be the decider as the group pans out. South Africa take a resolute defensive side to Equatorial Guinea, where their so-called revival will be put to the test. Bafana Bafana will have to make do without captain and goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa who was tragically murdered several weeks ago. However, Mashaba has turned around the nation’s fortunes, having topped their qualifying group and prevented Nigeria from defending their title. The team had remained unbeaten since he took charge in his fourth spell with the team. Tokelo Rantie is a star player that needs to be watched carefully by opponents and Dean Furman is also another player to watch.

Fixtures

19 January 2015 – Ghana v Senegal (Mongomo) | Algeria v South Africa (Mongomo)
23 January 2015 – Ghana v Algeria (Mongomo) | South Africa v Senegal (Mongomo)
27 January 2015 – South Africa v Ghana (Mongomo) | Senegal v Algeria (Malabo)

HalftimeNG Prediction: Algeria and Senegal to qualify

AFCON 2015 TEAM-BY-TEAM GUIDE – GROUP A

SuperEagles1It’s no longer news that the defending champion of the Africa Cup of Nations will not be a part of the 30th edition of the continental showpiece due to her lackluster performance during the qualifiers that saw them crash out on the final match day to South Africa (who finished unbeaten in the group) and Congo Brazzaville. Another drama en-route the tournament was Morocco’s refusal to host the showpiece due to the Ebola outbreak in some parts of the continent and stepping up as replacements were Equatorial Guinea – who had initially been disqualified in the qualification series for fielding an ineligible player.

Away from all of the sitcom-like happenings, the Nations Cup is here and starting from Saturday, 17th January, 2015, one team will be looking to be victorious after six matches on 8th February, 2015 to be crowned as African champions.

afcon-groups1Bata, Malabo, Mongomo and Ebebiyin are the host cities of this year’s tournament.

The Equatoguinean government have taken measures to prevent Ebola from reaching their soil, including hiring the expertise of a team of Cuban doctors, but as for the football, many matches are likely to be played in front of largely empty grounds which has a total population of just over 700,000. The country does have experience of organizing the Nations Cup, having co-hosted the 2012 tournament with Gabon. The capital Malabo, on the island of Bioko in the Gulf of Guinea, and the largest city Bata, on the African mainland, both hosted games then and will do so again, with Bata the venue for the final.

Here is a daily team-by-team guide to Africa’s best soccer festival.

Equatorial Guinea – Fifa ranking: 120 – African Cup of Nations best: Quarter-finals 2012

ez-2Hosts Equatorial Guinea have dodged the biggest names in the tournament, but still find themselves in a tricky group. The Central Africans have limited time to prepare for the tourney but they have quite a handful of foreign based stars to bolster their chances. Their Coach, Esteban Becker was hired only a few days before the Jan. 7 deadline to submit a squad of 23 players. However, the Argentinian coach was employed as Equatorial Guinea’s technical director, so he has good knowledge of his players. Becker has also found success with the national women’s team, winning the 2012 Africa Women’s Championship.

Star Player is Juvenal, who was Equatorial Guinea’s standout player in 2012. A very good passer of the ball, Juvenal no longer has the legs to cover the ground he used to, but his 28 caps are a team high, so his accrued experience will be vital in Group A.

Burkina Faso – Fifa ranking: 63 – ACN best: Runners-up 2013

photo_1360564740036-1-0Burkina Faso have benefitted from a spell of stability and continuity as Paul Put renewed his contract with the Black Stallions. Put understands the importance of fielding a balanced outfit with talented forwards. He will pin his goalscoring hopes on Jonathan Pitroipa who led the continent in scoring with six conversions during qualifiers. Banished from his native Belgium in a match-fixing scandal, Coach Paul Put has found a second home in Burkina Faso and he has managed this side for about five years, guiding them to a second-place finish in the Cup of Nations two years ago, and just narrowly missing out on a World Cup appearance.

Star Player is Jonathan Pitroipa. The wiry winger has been a talismanic figure for the Black Stallions for several years now. Now Pitroipa seems to be in the form of his life, leading the continent in scoring during qualifiers with six goals. Aristide Bance is another striker to watch out for.

Gabon – Fifa ranking: 65 – ACN best: Quarterfinals 1996, 2012

615x340_foot_gabon_teamGabon are undoubtedly this tournament’s dark horses. The Black Panthers have quality up their spine from Bruno Manga in defence, to Ibrahim Ndong and Andre Poko in midfield, to Malick Evouna and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in attack. Coach Jorge Costa has revived the excitement around the Gabonese national team. Known as “The Tank” or “The Animal” in Portugal, Costa should be commended for developing a tricky 4-3-3 that makes Gabon Africa’s best counterattacking side.

Star Player: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is one of the best players in the world at using his pace on the counterattack. His sheer speed and complementary relationship with Malick Evouna are sure to cause countless defences problems at the Afcon.

Congo – Fifa ranking: 61- ACN best: Winners 1972

congoCongo can count themselves lucky to be in Equatorial Guinea. Were it not for Rwanda fielding an ineligible player, Claude LeRoy and his men would have been eliminated in the preliminary rounds. Nevertheless the Red Devils bounced back admirably and with talented individuals they just might be able to spring a surprise. In Claude LeRoy, Congo has the most experienced tournament coach in Africa. His previous success with Cameroon inspires his players, who will make their first appearance at a Cup of Nations in 15 years.

Star Player: The arrival of striker Thievy Bifouma lifted Congo and his impact was immediately felt in the qualifiers.

FIXTURES

17 January 2015 – Equatorial Guinea v Congo | Burkina Faso v Gabon (Bata)
21 January 2015 – Equatorial Guinea v Burkina Faso | Gabon v Congo, (Bata)
25 January 2015 – Gabon v Equatorial Guinea (Bata) | Congo v Burkina Faso (Ebebiyin)

HalftimeNG Prediction: Burkina Faso and Gabon to qualify from this group.

Its a Rome Derby Weekend (09/01/15)

As I pen this weekend’s preview, the order of the French top division looks like it would potentially change as Montpellier concluded the double over league leading Olympique Marseille thereby opening the door for Olympique Lyon to move over to first place with a win in Sunday’s clash against Toulouse at the Stade de Gerland. With France seemingly the destination for an intriguing title race, we will make stops at our usual destinations as Italy serves up a Rome Derby and a tasty repeat of the Italian Super Cup as Napoli welcome Juventus to the San Paolo.

In Spain, there is the small matter of the Nou Camp been in disarray ahead of the visit of defending champions Atletico Madrid and in England, we definitely would have a proper leader at the top of the table with no need for the alphabets coming to our aid.

barcelona-vs-atletico-super-cup

Barcelona v Atletico Madrid

This is a much changed Atletico Madrid side from the one that got the much needed draw to win the title last season at the Nou Camp, despite this obvious fact, the mentality, desire, philosophy and drive remains the same; of course Diego Simeone remains at the helm; so you can expect a blood and sweat kind of performance from Vincente Calderon outfit. Barcelona on the other hand are a team in turmoil; board room replacements, instability and the rumoured unhappiness of Lionel Messi combine to show that all is not well at the Nou Camp.

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This tie in times past was renowned for producing tons of goals; this has changed as time went by with only one win in their last six meetings which ended in a 1-0 victory in favour of Atletico Madrid and the rest been varying degrees of draws with 1-1 the most common score line. Atletico Madrid are in other words undefeated in six games against Barcelona, whilst you cannot look beyond a result that favours the Madrid side, the Catalans are still very solid at the Nou Camp with 34 wins in their last 38 matches at home.

From a tactical perspective; despite the obvious fluidity of Barcelona’s front three, you would expect them to start the same way, but Atletico Madrid are a different proposition especially defensively. Luis Enrique needs to go with a more pragmatic approach with some steel in midfield. A midfield three of Rakitic, Busquets, Macherano whilst pushing Iniesta upfront for his creativity and imagination to join Messi and Neymar.

Barcelona-v-Atletico

Also, just like in the game last season; set pieces will play a huge role in Atletico’s game plan; as at last count they have scored 19 goals from set pieces and punished their City Rivals Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey clash in mid week, so Barcelona need to be at their best defending set plays; hence the possibility of having Jeremy Matheiu joining Gerald Pique at Center Back.

Halftimeng Prediction: Honours will be evenly shared as I just cannot separate both sides.

napjuv

Napoli v Juventus

A return to the basics seems to be the way forward for Juventus, this can only mean one thing; a return to the 3-5-2 formation that has earned them three straight Scudettos. A change to the supposedly more expansive back four seems to have left Juventus vulnerable at the back and with Andrea Pirlo with a lot less protection; the Turin side haven’t had the best start to 2015 as they would have expected with a draw against Inter Milan their opening result to the resumption of the campaign.

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Napoli, earlier in the season could be termed as draw specialists; but seem to have found winning form to coincide with the goal scoring form of Gonzalo Higuain. Victory over Juventus in the Super Cup will give the Naples side the motivation it needs to see through the challenge of the visiting champions.

Juventus from a tactical perspective always seem like they have their opponents boxed into a corner, but always seem unable to finish the job; the Bianconerri need to be a lot more clinical and ruthless to create some day light between itself and the rest of the chasing pack. Napoli are playing some blistering attacking football especially more from a counter attacking perspective, but need to seize the initiative more and control possession a lot more; this would would combine well with their quick attacking play and the return to form of Higuain.

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Juventus are undefeated in their last eight Serie A matches with Napoli undefeated in 13 of their last 14 matches in Serie A and interestingly are undefeated in their last nine games at the San Paolo against Juventus.

Halftimeng Prediction: A high score draw is expected

rome derby

Roma v Lazio

Only the Merseyside derby has had more Red cards issued than the Rome derby, that is how intense this derby is; but as is with other derbies, the form book is thrown out the window, this one is obviously no different. Lazio go into this tie more or less the in form team in Serie A with three wins and a draw in their last four games, so ideally they should be favorites. Ideally it should not be far from the truth but they come up against a Roma that can smell blood, ready to pounce on any slip up by Juventus in the title race.

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Even though both teams are separated by nine points, Lazio are in third just one position off Roma and potentially have Serie A’s in form player with four goals and four assist in the five game period Lazio have remained undefeated; Felipe Anderson continues to show that the Serie A is still littered with talents that can entertain, dribble and be disciplined all at the same time. Roma are undefeated in their last nine home games and are credited as the home side in this one. With the departures of Seydou Keita and Gervincho; you worry about what their absence takes away from Roma; interestingly you always worry about Lazio’s lack of squad depth and the likelihood that it could be overstretched in the coming weeks.

Halftimeng Prediction: Another score draw, cannot separate both sides

Monaco v Bordeaux

Bordeaux has to be the most hit by the departures to the African Nations Cup with five of its first team departing for the tournament, this will definitely prove to be a big headache for Willy Sagnol; especially as it had seemed his squad had settled well into the 3-5-2 formation until Lyon came to down to tear it all apart to a humiliating victory.

Monaco are on a resurgence, after such a poor start especially after all the big name depatures; but with seven games gone without defeat, the Principality has once again been lit up especially with the goals of Dimitar Berbatov and solid defensive base that has conceded only a goal since November. With the potential changes at the top of Ligue 1, the victor in this clash gets the opportunity to close ranks with the big boys and move closer to the Champions League positions.

Bordeaux will go into this clash as favorites solely due to a better head to head; as Willy Sagnol’s team are undefeated in their last eight visits to the Principality.

Halftimeng Prediction: Monaco to get their first win in Nine attempts against Bordeaux at the home

In England, we have a small matter of the potential reconstruction of the top four, Manchester City could potentially be top of the table by the close of play on Saturday as they visit Everton, who have lost four straight league games. Chelsea host a depleted Newcastle side at Stamford Bridge looking to make it 10 wins out of 10 at home in the premiership. So depending; on the number  of goals the top teams put pass their opponents, we wont need to consult the alphabets. On Sunday, its third v fourth as Manchester United host Southampton; who have bounced back quite well from the run of games against the big boys. A win for Southampton takes them to third and would improve their form to four wins from a possible five games; however they come to Old Trafford where United have eight wins from ten games and haven’t lost to Southampton in their last eleven games in all competitions.

Other interesting ties this weekend has Stoke seeking to do the double over Arsenal at the Emirates, whilst Alan Pardew and Tony Pulis take charge of their first Premier League games against Tottenham Hotspurs and Hull respectively as managers of Crystal Palace and West Bromich Albion.

Three deserving winners, One crown.

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Awards are rewards for excellence, whilst we can attribute the word excellent as the best word to describe West African players as they yet again dominate the three man list of players vying for the crown as the best player on the continent. On Thursday 8th January 2015, Lagos will host football stakeholders, Officials, Coaches and Players to an Awards Gala for the third time. It might surprise you to know that since 1992, only on three occasions have all final three nominees of the CAF awards come from West Africa. In 1998, Mustapha Hadji of Morocco won the award ahead of two Nigerians ; Austin Jay Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh who came second and third respectively. In 2002, Hassan Mido of Egypt came third behind El Hadji Diouf of Senegal and Samuel Kuffour of Ghana. Also, In 2008, Mohammed Aboutrika of Egypt came second ahead of Michael Essien of Ghana and behind Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo who went home with the award. All other times has seen all three nominees come from West Africa.

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With 2014 not an exception, Its no longer news that the three players vying for the 2014 crown are ; Yaya Toure of Cote d’voire and Manchester City, Vincent Enyeama of Nigeria and Lille and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon and Borussia Dortmund. Aubameyang who is 25 years of age is the youngest of all three and the most unlikely to win the award in my opinion, Yes his club won the DFL super cup last season, Runners up in German bundesliga behind Bayern munich and Runners up in the DFB-Pokal cup, got to quarter finals of the UEFA champions league, He scored 13 league goals in 32 appearances and 16 goals overall in 48 games. His contributions were vital to Borrusia Dortmund’s successes but coming up against the individual brilliance and achievements of Yaya Toure and Vincent Enyeama, Aubameyang falls short.

Yaya Toure

Yaya Toure as a midfielder was Manchester City’s highest goal scorer in the Premier League with 20 goals in 35 games and 24 goals in 49 games overall, a tally that fell short of only Sergio Aguero’s 28 goals in all competitions. Yaya Toure will be looking to equal the record of Samuel Eto’o Fils of winning the award four times. However, If he wins the award this time out, he will be the first player to have won it four times in a row.

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Not often do we get to see Goal Keepers on this list but the brilliance and achievements of Vincent Enyeama last season cannot be swept under the carpet. Enyeama kept 11 consecutive clean sheets in the first half of last season and 21 clean sheets all through the season, more than any goal keeper in the top 5 leagues in Europe. A record that is second to only Salvatore Sirigu’s record of 2012/13 season. Enyeama was named the fourth best keeper in the world cup in Brazil despite crashing out in the round of 16. He kept two clean sheets at the world cup, one against Iran in a 0-0 draw and the other against Bosnia Herzegovina in 1-0 win for the Super Eagles of Nigeria.

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For what the award is meant to be ‘A reward for individual brilliance’, you sincerely cannot begrudge Yaya Toure from achieving the Quadriple, but then with National sentiments involved and the fact that in terms of actual performance, you could also lean in favour of Enyeama; he has been consistent and is an integral part of the performances of his club and national team; is only draw back is that the goal keeping fraternity is not that renowned for claiming individual awards. If you take the exception of Badou Zaki and Thomas Nkono; legendary Goalies of the 80s that won the award when still under the auspicies of France Football, goalies haven’t come anywhere near winning with maybe Joseph Antonie Bell the exception also in the 1980s. Enyeama is interestingly the first Goalie to make the final cut since CAF took over handing out the award; a win for him is a huge statement for Goalkeepers, so also as Manuel Neuer is looking to make a huge statement for the men between the sticks as he goes head to head with Lionel Messi and Cristano Ronaldo for the Balon D’or.

Can a Goalie shake the established order? Will the powers that be maintain the status quo? We wait to see if Africa can blaze the trend by awarding its player of the year to a Goalkeeper, to Vincent Enyeama.

 

Thanks for reading.

This Weekend (02/01/15)

Its our first installment of the weekend’s preview of the top matches in Europe and across the world. I must say a Happy New Year to all readers of this column and the website as a whole; I wish you all the great things 2015 has to offer; may this be your best year yet.

As is customary, the English game has continued to keep millions of football fans entertained especially during the festive season as the rest of Europe remain on their usual winter break. This weekend, we have the Spanish La Liga making a return, whilst we have the F.A. Cup taking center stage in England.

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Valencia v Real Madrid

I understand there was some form of compromise between Real Madrid and AC Milan to treat the result of their Dubai International friendly as irrelevant; however, you cannot take anything away from how “poor” Real were on the night. So with a winning streak currently at 22 still ongoing Real Madrid face an opponent that would love to halt their enviable record. This season, under the guidance of Nuno Espirito Santo and the financial backing of Peter Lim, Valencia look like top four contenders, playing some good attractive football; keeping touch with the top three of Real Madrid, Barcelona  and Atletico Madrid. Unfortunately, Los Che come against a team they have recorded the most victories in La Liga against, although current form shows they have lost five times in a row against Real Madrid and are winless in 12 games.

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The Mestalla used to be know as a fortress for a number of the big teams, but Real have found a way to win consistently against Valencia on their home turf  well and comfortably at that; delivering high scoring games with regularity.

Halftimeng Prediction: Real Madrid to make it 23 wins on the spin and six wins in a row against Valencia

 

Real Sociedad v Barcelona

If there is a team that knows how to defeat Barcelona in recent times; its Real Sociedad; however this is a different and struggling Sociedad under the guidance of David Moyes. The Basque club have really struggled this season, winning only three of fourteen matches played so far this season, this makes for very worrying reading as they host a Barcelona side that has won five of their last six matches in La Liga.

Barcelona v Sociedad

With all these in context, the major issues has to be the ability of David Moyes being able to rally his team to continue their current great run of form against Barcelona; Sociedad are undefeated against last five home games against Barcelona dating back to 2007. Barcelona need to stay in touch with their rivals and cannot afford to drop valuable points at the Anoeta, especially as Real Madrid have already been defeated in the same stadium.

Halftimeng Prediction: Barcelona to end its horrific run of results at the Anoeta.

F.A. CUP

FA Cup

The oldest knock out tournament in the world makes its return with a number of intriguing fixtures and as its expected annually there will be upsets, giant killings and fairy tale runs with the likes of Gateshead, Yeovil Town and AFC Wimbledon getting mouth watering ties against some big names in the premier league. In another clash and potentially the tie of the round; there is a small matter of revenge on the cards at the Emirates as the repeat of last year’s F.A. Cup takes center stage with Hull visiting Arsenal as both teams had mixed fortunes in the New Year’s day fixtures.

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Premier League Leaders, Chelsea have a small matter of a London derby with Watford to navigate, you can expect a number of changes in the Chelsea line up after the White Hart Lane humbling.