World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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The Show Must Go On As The 2015 African Cup Of Nations Gets Set To Start

Who will win the African Cup of Nations? (Image from Getty)This Saturday sees the kick off of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations with host nation Equatorial Guinea taking on Congo in the opening match. The start of this year’s tournament will come as a great relief to the president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), Issa Hayatou who has endured a stressful time of late since Morocco spectacularly pulled the plug on hosting the event in an announcement made in October 2014. Originally selected back in 2011, Morocco informed CAF that it refused to host the tournament amid concerns around the Ebola virus epidemic that was gripping parts of western Africa spreading to their country. Their principle fear was that if the virus spread to Morocco it would affect one of their principle pillars of revenue – tourism with visitors staying away as a result. Whilst reassurances were made by CAF, Morocco failed to budge and as a result the tournament had to be relocated quickly. Step forward Equatorial Guinea, who despite the tight turnaround believed that they could host Africa’s biggest tournament.

CAF President Issa Hayatou has had much to ponder of late  (Image from Getty)

CAF President Issa Hayatou has had much to ponder of late
(Image from Getty)

Tight is hardly how to describe the situation that Guinea faced, left with only 8 weeks to organize a 16 team 3 week long tournament. Venues had to be identified and secured quickly, accommodation for all 16 teams established as well as hundreds of other smaller items including match scheduling, ticket allocation and security to name a few. There was little time for this small oil rich central African state to improve on the stadiums so some fall far behind what would be classed as international ready. But Hayatou is hardly in a position to complain having taken the tough decision not to delay or postpone the tournament after Morocco’s exit. Hayatou is also facing the wrath of several national teams and coaches who are highly critical of the facilities in Guinea and its organization in general, citing the federation has done little to help resolve a growing list of problems. Guinea to be fair has done a remarkable job in getting ready, albeit with slight hiccups along the way – some nations are still hunting for additional accommodation as there aren’t enough hotel rooms to go around whilst others who are lucky enough to have rooms have found in some cases a lack running water or rooms in a desperate state of disrepair. Despite the chaos, the tournament will kick off in earnest on Saturday with the football taking the spotlight rather than the circus that has led up to it.

Not all the accommodation options in Guinea have been up to scratch  (Image from Seastravel.com)

Not all the accommodation options in Guinea have been up to scratch
(Image from Seastravel.com)

Algeria enter the tournament as strong favourites after an outstanding World Cup which saw them reaching the last 16 for the first time in their history. Regarded by many as the best team in Africa at the present time, Algeria play an attractive fast flowing game which utilizes many of the same squad retained from the Brazil World Cup. Stand out players Yacine Brahimi, Islam Slimani and Sofiane Feghouli will need to be on form and up for the event when they kick off their campaign against South Africa on Monday. To win the tournament, Algeria will need to first escape from what is by far the hardest group that also contains Ghana and Senegal alongside South Africa. Ghana in particular are keen to put their poor performance at the World Cup behind them and show that they are a dominant force in African football. It has remarkably been 30 years since Ghana lifted the Cup, something the current team is all too aware of and keen to rectify. As too are the stars of the Ivory Coast team who have had to wait 20 years since their last victory. But with Manchester City’s newest signing Wilfried Bony on a rich vein of form coming into the tournament as well as host of other star players around him like Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou, the Ivory Coast has a very strong chance of ending their run of bad luck. South Africa and Cameroon are considered potential winners as well after strong qualifying campaigns. The two nations, who have a rich pedigree in international football have fallen on darker days of late but are displaying early signs of recovery in their recent form.

Few are giving host nation Equatorial Guinea much of a chance of providing a shock but as history has shown in the past, the winner of the African Cup of Nations is hardly an easy one to predict. Zambia were shock winners in 2012 whilst Burkina Faso almost upset the apple cart last year before being beat in the final by a young and vibrant Nigeria side. Regardless of the winner, the next three weeks will be an action packed hell raising experience for the fans that have made the journey. Whilst not on the same level of stature as the World Cup, the African Cup of Nations is certainly one of the most vivacious in international football. It’s a tournament that showcases the very best of African talent and for Hayatou is the highlight of the calendar year, hence his desire to make it happen.

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Switch To Morocco Adds Little To Farcial Club World Cup

FIFA's continuation of the Club World Cup is baffling with interest falling year over year (Image from Getty)For a tournament that is seeing diminishing interest season after season, the annual FIFA Club World Cup continues to rear its ugly head much to the surprise of many. This year’s tournament is being played in Africa for first time in a welcome change to what has already become a dried out format. The switch to Morocco is only the fourth time that the tournament has been played away from its apparent home in Japan and was done it would seem to appease Real Madrid who already face a tough schedule as it is. The Club World Cup, despite being yet another opportunity for Real to showcase its star studded line up offers little to the Spanish giants and travelling to Asia would have made it even less appealing. Moving the event to within a short flight of Madrid means that Real can take part without worrying about the consequences attached to a long haul journey mid season.

Morocco plays host to this years event  (Image from AFP)

Morocco plays host to this years event
(Image from AFP)

Real manager Carlo Ancelotti remains as always positive about the tournament insisting it is the perfect way for his side to cap off a highly successful 2014 but in truth he is probably frustrated that this event is even on the calendar in the first place. To be honest, most clubs are with the exception of the South American teams who strangely see it as a pinnacle event. With only seven teams taking part, two of which (finalists Madrid and San Lorenzo) entering at the semi final stage, the cup is viewed by many as a joke. After all you have to ask yourself what value a tournament has when it can be won by only playing two games. Few other sports would entertain such a bizarre concept as this but yet FIFA insists that the tournament remains as is and continues to exist season after season.

Real Manager Carlo Ancelotti has remained positive about the tournament despite its drawbacks  (Image from EPA)

Real Manager Carlo Ancelotti has remained positive about the tournament despite its drawbacks
(Image from EPA)

Real Madrid’s passage into the final was as expected; a fairly easy exercise with Madrid not really having to step up a gear to beat Mexican side Cruz Azul in the semi finals. In the end a 4-0 score line highlighted the ease in which they dispatched their opponents and in truth it could have been worse especially if some of the half chances created by Madrid had been converted. Up next in the final is San Lorenzo which is likely to be a more difficult match for the Galaticos, albeit one that they should still win without much drama.

Sergio Ramos scores one of Real's four goals against Cruz Azul  (Image from PA

Sergio Ramos scores one of Real’s four goals against Cruz Azul
(Image from PA

Argentinean side San Lorenzo may be able to call on Pope Francis as one of their most famous of fans but relying on him for divine intervention against Real Madrid may be asking too much. Since their stunning Copa Libertadores victory over Paraguay’s Nacional in August, the squad has lost some of its key players. Stars like Angel Correa, the talented young attacking midfielder who agreed to join Spanish champions Atletico Madrid in the summer before the conclusion of the Copa and top goal scorer Ignacio Piatti who joined Montreal Impact in the MLS shortly after playing in the final. The loss of these two players in particular cannot be understated as both were considered as vital cogs in the Lorenzo machine. Replacing them has not been easy with head coach Edgardo Bauza relying on emerging youngsters like Juan Cavallaro and Hector Villalba to plug the sizeable gap. Nevertheless progress through the Club World Cup has been steady yet if somewhat frustrating.

San Lorenzo are a weaker side now that Correa has departed for Europe  (Image from Getty)

San Lorenzo are a weaker side now that Correa has departed for Europe
(Image from Getty)

Entering at the semi final stage, San Lorenzo were pitched against New Zealand outfit Auckland City with the Argentine side considered heavy favourites to progress to the final. However they made hard work of doing so, needing a 93rd minute strike by substitute Mauro Matos to seal the victory. Even after Matos goal, San Lorenzo looked suspect at the back and on a few occasions their fans had their hearts in their mouths following some near post chances from Auckland. Regardless San Lorenzo now find themselves in their first ever Club World Cup final against arguably the best side in the world right now. They will need to play exceptionally well to win the Cup or hope that Madrid realize how insignificant this tournament has become in advance of the final and choose to not show up. Whilst unlikely to happen, it is this sort of move that would force FIFA into a drastic rethink about their beloved Club World Cup format. Only then could this tournament start to demonstrate value once more and become a competition that clubs across the world actually want to compete in and win.

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Morocco Pulls Out Of Hosting African Cup Of Nations Due To Fears Over Ebola

Where now for the African Cup Of Nations? (Image from PA)There is something to be said about the impact fear alone can have on society. Just the notion that something could go wrong often leads to us as a civilization to pause and retreat. Often nothing comes from it, or at least it cannot be measured as things have been altered to prevent that fear from becoming a reality. Fear overcomes many obstacles in order to get its way with people dismissing common sense, raw data and logical arguments along the way to giving in to it. It would appear as though fear has won again, this time in Africa with Morocco deciding that they can no longer play host to next years African Cup of Nations due to the fear that Ebola may surface in the country during the tournament.

Issa Hayatou, President of CAF now faces a race against time to find a new host for the event (Image from Getty)

Issa Hayatou, President of CAF now faces a race against time to find a new host for the event (Image from Getty)

Seen as the pinnacle of international football in Africa, Morocco’s decision to walk away from hosting next January’s event has thrown the tournament into chaos. For organizers the Confederation of African Football (CAF), finding a suitable replacement at such short notice may be an impossible task with other nations unwilling to play host due to similar concerns. Cancelling is not an option at present but if a country cannot be found within weeks then they may be left with no other choice than to postpone their flagship tournament. To be fair, Morocco has every right to be fearful about Ebola spreading to its lands. The epidemic, which has been traced back to a two year old girl who died in December of last year in Guinea has rapidly infected thousands in the largely impoverished countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea and to date has killed just under 5,000. Included in that count was Thomas Eric Duncan, a US citizen who after contracting the disease through contact in Liberia flew back to Texas only to die in quarantine some five days later. A handful of other people have also undergone treatment in the US, Spain and Norway but all are in the medical profession and had been in Western Africa helping fight the disease so understood the early warning signs enough to seek help.

Dr Kent Brantly is a US doctor who contracted the disease but has since made a full recovery  (Image from Reuters)

Dr Kent Brantly is a US doctor who contracted the disease but has since made a full recovery
(Image from Reuters)

The disease can only be passed through contact with infected blood or bodily fluids and is not as many feared an air borne virus. Contracting the disease is extremely difficult unless you have come into contact with someone already infected but that information appears to fall onto deaf ears as fear takes control. Whilst new cases are being reported in the three worst hit regions, no new cases outside of that have come to light in the last two weeks. In fact leading doctors in the field are starting to see that the disease is plateauing in the worst hit country of Sierra Leone with fewer new cases coming forward than previous months. The latest information released suggests that the containment infrastructure employed in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia is working with the disease mostly contained now to these countries and that progress is being made a pegging back the onslaught of the disease.

The Ebola virus has spread panic across the globe since the first cases were diagnosed  (Image from Getty)

The Ebola virus has spread panic across the globe since the first cases were diagnosed
(Image from Getty)

However global fear has overtaken raw data and logic and is fueling the continued panic about Ebola. Football had already seen a few cases of this with select clubs unwilling to accept their African players back to training after international appearances. But now the fear has won its first victory with Morocco overlooking recent health reports in favour of believing that the fear could be real. Fear will continue to grow until Ebola is once again eradicated but until then it will flourish with few willing to side against it. The fate of next years African Cup of Nations will depend on the next few weeks and how much progress is made in tackling the outbreak. However by then it may just be too late to rescue the tournament which looks set to be yet another victim of the Ebola crisis.

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Munir Enters The Fold With A Bang

New Prospect - Munir El Haddadi  (Image from Getty)

With all the recent changes at Barcelona and the high profile arrivals of Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Thomas Vermaelen, the emergence of Munir El Haddadi into the first team could have gone unnoticed. But the young Spanish striker of Moroccan descent decided that he wanted to enter the fray with a big splash rather than sliding in under the radar. And how he did that. Under new head coach Luis Enrique, who joined the club in the summer from Celta de Vigo, Munir El Haddadi (or Munir for short) has been given the chance to shine in the Barcelona first team and has taken it well. Munir was a surprise starter in Barcelona’s opening league fixture of the new La Liga season against Elche but was quick to show the fans why Enrique was so keen to do so. Playing on the left hand side of a three man attack along with Lionel Messi and fellow youngster Rafinha, Munir played a key role in Barcelona’s opening goal, scored of course by Messi before getting on the score sheet himself with a fine finish just after the half time interval. By the 67th minute, Luis Enrique had seen enough of his new star and substituted him for Pedro, allowing Munir the opportunity to gain a rousing round of applause from the Barca fans as he exited the pitch. It was a day that Munir will never forget.

Munir celebrates his goal with Messi  (Image from AFP)

Munir celebrates his goal with Messi
(Image from AFP)

A product of the Barcelona youth system after he was snapped up from Atletico Madrid aged 16, Munir has only been playing for a short time but already looks like a seasoned professional. At 5ft 10inches, Munir is surprisingly quick with great footwork and a sharp eye for goal as he demonstrated early on in his career. Munir first caught the eye in 2010 on loan at Rayo Majadohonda in Spain’s fourth division where he scored 32 goals from 29 matches. This strike rate for someone so young attracted interest from Real Madrid and Manchester City but it was Barcelona who stepped in to sign him in the end. Their decision to do so was repaid last season when Munir played a starring role in the clubs UEFA Youth League victory with the youngster finishing as top scorer, including a stunning brace in the final against Benfica. He was quickly promoted to Barcelona’s B team early this year and continued his form scoring four times in eleven games. With the arrival of Luis Enrique came Munir’s chance to step up to the first team. Enrique, a former Barcelona player himself, wanted to build a squad with a mix of experienced professionals and talented youngsters so his first stop was to Barcelona’s famed production line – their youth team. Top of the list for promotion to the first team was Munir. Barcelona B team head coach Eusebio Sacristán sang his praises to Enrique and before long Munir was training with the first team and now part of Enrique’s long term plans. Munir had arrived.

Spanish Debut as Munir replaces Koke  (Image from Getty)

Spanish Debut as Munir replaces Koke
(Image from Getty)

International football was always on the cards for this talented youngster but few suspected it to arrive so quickly. After deciding to play for his country of birth, Spain rather than that of his fathers, Morocco Munir made himself available for selection. Little did he know that the call from Spanish Head Coach Vicente Del Bosque would come so soon. Only two weeks after making his senior debut for Barcelona, Munir was heading to Valencia to join up with the Spanish national team as they prepared to take on Macedonia in their opening European Championships qualifying game. Named as a substitute in the game, Munir soaked up the atmosphere as he sat back to watch the match unfold. As this was his first exposure to the team, he anticipated that he would be a spectator for the match, using it as a learning exercise to prepare him for a future appearance. But Del Bosque had other ideas. With Spain 4-1 and cruising towards three points, the call came for Munir to warm up; he was going on for his full debut. On the 77th minute, Munir gained his first cap coming on for Atletico Madrid’s Koke, again to a round of applause. It capped a stunning few weeks for the youngster who is now looking to build upon both his Barcelona and Spain appearances in the upcoming months. Competition of places at both club and country will be tough but for this mature young man, nothing appears to faze him. Munir is up for the challenges that lie ahead including cementing his spot in Barcelona’s starting eleven. A tough task but one he is very much ready to take on.

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Ethiopia Look Towards Zambia For Inspiration

2013 Africa Cup of Nations (Image from Wikipedia.org)With the African Cup of Nations 2013 kicking off in eight days time, all attention is turned towards South Africa to see what country manages to emulate the 2012 surprise winners Zambia and lift the coveted trophy. Competition will be fierce with host South Africa, along with Ghana and Ivory Coast joining Zambia as favourites to win the tournament. However if Zambia’s win has taught us anything, the African Cup of Nations is wide open with all teams capable of causing an upset. Former champions Tunisia and Nigeria will be hoping to reclaim the trophy after a years of disappointment whilst other teams like Togo and Morocco will be thankful that 7 times winners Egypt and World Cup regulars Cameroon failed to qualify for this years event. But for one team, taking part in th African Cup of Nations is the first step in rebuilding pride in football within their country.

Zambia wins last years Cup (Image from AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO)

Zambia wins last years Cup
(Image from AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO)

After a 31 year absence, Ethiopia are back in the Cup and are looking to make an impact. The winners in 1964 have a relatively inexperienced side, whose squad contains only three players who play in leagues outside of Ethiopia (Yussuf Saleh in Sweden, Saladin Said in Egypt and Fuad Ibrahim in the US), are attempting to follow in Zambia’s footsteps and upset the apple cart by winning the tournament. Having beaten Sudan on away goals to qualify, Ethiopia are out to prove that they warrant their place and are not there just to make up the numbers. Place in a Group C, they face three tough games against Nigeria, Burkina Faso and current champions Zambia with hopes of reaching the second round looking relatively slim.

Ethiopia will face Nigeria in the group stages (Image from FIFA.com)

Ethiopia will face Nigeria in the group stages (Image from FIFA.com)

Whilst expectations are low, Ethiopian football is on the up at the moment with the national team experiencing a good spell. Not only have they qualified for this tournament, they also lead  Group A in the 2014 World Cup qualification. Whilst they still have along way to go, it will give the country a lift to believe that they may qualify for their first ever World Cup appearance. But for Head Coach, Sewnet Bishaw and his team, the focus is 100% on the African Cup of Nations for now. With a host of good young players making up the step up to national team such as striker Getaneh Kebede and fellow striker Saladin Said (the country’s record holder for the highest transfer paid), the future looks bright for Ethiopia. The youngsters are supported by the more experienced members of the squad like Adane Girma and captain Degu Debebe who are looking towards Zambia’s success last time for inspiration. Debebe, interviewed during their latest training session gave his views:

“What matters most is our strength. We saw how Zambia performed in the last Afcon. No one expected them to win the cup. They won because they played as a team and didn’t underestimate any team. We can learn a lesson from them and make possible what seems impossible. We will give our best.”

Youthful team - Ethiopia (Image from Ethiosports.com)

Youthful team – Ethiopia (Image from Ethiosports.com)

Regardless of how Ethiopia perform in this tournament and if they can make the fairytale underdog story come true and win the cup, their country will be proud of what this young team has achieved. With each game comes more experience and the longer these players play together, the better they will become. If they can continue their existing form, then maybe they might just shock a few teams at this years event and help to write yet another chapter in their football history.