Football: Mahrez heads multi-star Africa Cup cast

Algeria striker Riyad Mahrez is voted African Footballer of the Year after inspiring Leicester City to the English Premier League title last season. (AFP)
Updated 09 January 2017
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Football: Mahrez heads multi-star Africa Cup cast

LIBREVILLEJ: New African Footballer of the Year and Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez tops a cast of stars heading to Gabon this week for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. 
AFP Sport selects five footballers worth keeping a close eye on when the biennial 16-team competition bursts into action this Saturday:
PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG (Gabon)
The 27-year-old striker has been averaging a goal a game this season for Borussia Dortmund to top the Bundesliga scorers’ chart going into the mid-season break.
After being crowned 2015 African Footballer of the Year, the France-born son of a Gabonese father and a Spanish mother finished runner-up to lethal Leicester City weapon Mahrez in the latest poll.
He will be desperate to do well for Gabon as his failure to convert a shootout penalty condemned the 2012 Cup of Nations co-hosts to a quarter-finals defeat by Mali.
SERGE AURIER (Ivory Coast)
The 24-year-old Paris-Saint Germain defender was constantly in the media spotlight last year, but many of the headlines he created had little to do with football.
He labelled team-mate Angel Di Maria a “clown,” made homophobic insults against then PSG coach Laurent Blanc, struck a Paris police officer and made a throat-slitting gesture after an Ivory Coast game.
But the right-back was hailed as a hero last November when he saved the life of a Mali opponent in a World Cup qualifier by preventing the injured footballer swallowing his tongue.
ANDRE AYEW (Ghana)
Sidelined by injury for much of this English Premier League season, the absence of the 27-year-old West Ham United midfielder has been sorely felt by misfiring Ghana.
No Ayew meant there was little creativity from the four-time African champions, who have won only one of their last five Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers.
Captain and striker Asamoah Gyan will be particularly happy to see ‘Dede’ back in the national team as his form has been embarrassingly poor, due partly to a lack of quality service.
RIYAD MAHREZ (Algeria)
Being voted 2016 African Footballer of the Year crowned a special spell in the career of the 25-year-old who helped Leicester City to a sensational Premier League title last season.
He was also named Premier League Players’ Player of the Season, BBC African Footballer of the Year and made the FIFA Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or lists too.
But his form, and the results of Leicester and Algeria, have gone off the boil lately, placing pressure on the man who has succeeded Sofiane Feghouli as the football icon of the north African nation.
SADIO MANE (Senegal)
After disastrous 2012 and 2015 Cup of Nations campaigns, success-starved Senegalese supporters hope Liverpool striker Mane can trigger a change in fortunes.
The Teranga Lions lost all three matches five years ago and won only one two years ago as two ventures into central Africa turned sour despite star-stacked squads.
Liverwire attacker Mane, third in the 2016 African Footballer of the Year poll behind Mahrez and Aubameyang, has been consisently impressive for the title-chasing Merseysiders this season.


Giorgio Chiellini confident Juventus can buck recent trend of Supercoppa defeats

Though upbeat, Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini admitted that it will be a “difficult match.” (AN Photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 16 January 2019
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Giorgio Chiellini confident Juventus can buck recent trend of Supercoppa defeats

  • Skipper also happy the match is being played in Jeddah, and sees it as a ‘step forward’ for Saudi Arabia
  • AC Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso sidesteps questions about Gonzalo Higuain’s rumored move to English Premier League

JEDDAH: Juventus have been experiencing a worrying trend in cup finals of late. Despite securing the Serie A and Coppa Italia double for three seasons running, they have lost back-to-back Supercoppas and seven out of nine European cup finals. It’s a trend, however, that captain Giorgio Chiellini believes can be halted on January 16 when his side takes on AC Milan in the Supercoppa Italiana final at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“We want to change that trend that has seen us lose the last two Supercoppa finals, and this is the ideal opportunity,” said the defender. “We have changed a great deal in two years, but we’ve got to prove ourselves with actions rather than words because we let a few too many of these trophies slip through our fingers and it’s a shame.
“It’s going to be a difficult match but the objective is to start 2019 lifting a trophy above our heads.”
Chiellini also defended the choice of Jeddah as the venue for the game against a backdrop of criticism by some. He said that it was “right” to give the Saudi port city the chance to host the showpiece match.
“I am happy this game is being played here and can be seen as a further reason for progress in this country, and I see it as a step forward and not a problem,” he said. “We (soccer players) cannot change the world but initiatives such as this can provide a new start.
“We have been given a warm welcome and I hope tomorrow can be remembered by the Saudi people as a wonderful celebration. We have to provide a spectacle of Italian football and know that all fans will be happy with our performances.”
As the rival teams faced the media on the eve of the match, both were confident about their chances of lifting the first silverware of the Italian soccer season. This year marks the 31st Supercoppa, a match contested by the previous season’s Serie A domestic league champions and the winners of the Coppa Italia. When a single team wins both honors, as was the case last season, they take on the Coppa Italia runners-up.
This year’s game, the tickets for which reportedly sold out in two days, might also mark a farewell to Italian football for striker Gonzalo Higuain, who is currently on loan to AC Milan from Juventus but is widely rumored to be on the verge of a move to Chelsea in the English Premier League. If the Argentine international is indeed on his way out, he will be hoping to end his stay with the Rossoneri with some silverware while also, perhaps, sticking it to his parent club.

Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso (center) said Higuain has never told him he wants to leave the club. (AN Photo by Huda Bashatah)

Asked about the status of any transfer talks, AC Milan head coach Gennaro Gattuso was careful to avoid feeding the rumor mill.
“At this moment, I have to repeat the same words: there are many rumors but Higuain is training well and working with everyone just fine and is at our disposal,” he said. “I base my decisions on how players train during the week and how they work with the staff and their teammates. We’ll see tomorrow whether he plays or not.
“I want to reiterate that Higuain has never told me he wants to leave. I am waiting for that. He has to decide what to do, how to resolve this issue, but right now he is training with great professionalism. We’ll see.”
Gattuso then nipped this line of questioning in the bud by adding: “I want to be honest; I don’t even want to talk about Higuain as we’re here for the Supercoppa.”
Juventus head coach Massimiliano Allegri, meanwhile, is well aware that while they are undefeated in Serie A this season after 19 games, with 17 wins and two draws, league form counts for little in a cup final, as evidenced by their recent results in such games. As such, he is keen to avoid any complacency among his players.
“One of the great strengths of this team is our respect for the opposition, otherwise you don’t win as many games as we have,” he said. “There are 22 points separating our teams in Serie A but those don’t matter here. If we do not have great humility and respect for Milan tomorrow, then it’s unlikely we will win the game.”
The prematch press conference inevitably included questions about Cristiano Ronaldo. Since his 112 million euro ($128 million) move to Juventus from Real Madrid last summer, the Portuguese star has netted 15 goals in 25 appearances. On Wednesday, the five-time winner of the Ballon d'Or — an award presented each year by France Football magazine to the player judged to be the best in the world — will aim to lift his maiden trophy with his new club, after having bagged 15 titles during his nine years with the Spanish giants.
While Ronaldo did not appear at the press conference, Allegri was asked whether the striker had arrived in Italy with a stronger and hungrier desire to win.
“He would have to win something first to prove that,” the coach said. “Cristiano is accustomed to winning; he has won four of the past five Champions Leagues and many more titles. Ronaldo is the best player in the world and clearly an added bonus for us. Our situation has certainly improved with his presence.”
Wednesday night’s match is sure to be hotly contested, as Juventus and AC Milan currently share the record for Supercoppa titles, with seven each. While Juventus are making their seventh successive Supercoppa appearance, it is perhaps AC Milan who can lay claim to bragging rights, given that the last time these two teams met in the Supercoppa, in 2016, the Rossoneri ended up on top following a penalty shoot-out after the game ended in a 1-1 draw after extra time. With all the talking officially done, all that remains is a historic night of top quality soccer at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium.