Aston Villa's captain Ron Vlaar gestures to the fans after their win against Reading during their English Premier League soccer match at The Madejski Stadium, Reading, southern England

Crucial win sees Aston Villa move out of Premier League drop zone

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Aston Villa were the better team for most of this one, but it’s relatively common state for Villa – the superficial, unrewarded control that Paul Lambert’s team has often “enjoyed” throughout a troubling campaign. When an early Nathan Baker own goal left Villa to rue Christian Benteke’s early misses, Lambert’s team looked set for what would have been a crushing loss.

But today was one of the rare instances were Villa’s quality came good. A quick response from Benteke pulled Villa even, and when Gabriel Agbonlahor put the visitors up 2-1 at half time, Villa had all they needed. After 45 more minutes of Reading looking like the 19th place team they are, Aston Villa had a desperately needed three points, with Brad Guzan only having to make three saves.

Villa came into the match in 18th place, an astonishing station for one of the bigger clubs in English soccer. But their poor results and lack of improvement had pundits and fans questioning if they were destined to go down.

That made today’s match at Reading crucial. Not only was the game against one of the league’s bottom feeders a chance for crucial points, but Villa couldn’t afford to give Reading a needed boost.

Instead, it was the Lions that got the boost, one that came from the two men you’d expect to step up. Benteke has clearly been Villa’s best player this season. His goal was no surprise, but that it was Agbonlahor who scored such an important goal was apt. He is one of the few impact players left from the Martin O’Neill teams that serve as the reference point for the club’s current plight.

Those teams competed for Europe. This team’s fighting for survival. Three points at Reading took a huge step toward that goal, if for no other reason than it puts the Royals on the bring of the Championship.

With the result, Villa moves into 17th place, pushing Wigan into the drop. The Latics have a match in hand, having been pulled into FA Cup competition on Saturday. With a goal difference advantage, Wigan would stay up, should they convert on their match in hand.

But with nine games to go in the season, a three-point lead only matters so much. How the team’s playing is arguably more important. It portends to future points – points that could render Wigan’s match in hand irrelevant.

Villa took a big step forward today. The competition wasn’t fierce, but for a team that has often failed to convert control into concrete results, three points were huge.

Here’s Gabby Agbonlahor’s game-winner, courtesy FOX Soccer:

Ronaldo shows no sign of injury while hanging with Conor McGregor

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Cristiano Ronaldo may not be ready for the UEFA Super Cup, but he’s no longer limping around.

To explore the Real Madrid superstar’s Instagram is to see Ronaldo, sometimes clothed, hanging out with celebrities.

In the last couple weeks we’ve seen him with Eva Longoria, Jennifer Lopez, and now his “bro” Conor McGregor.

[ MORE: Who wins the League of Hate? ]

Wait, what?

Yeah, Ronaldo is friends with the MMA star, and showed no ill form (and no brace of any kind) in several posed photos with McGregor.

Although admittedly, McGregor’s IG game is a bit better: The Irish fighter posted a photo of himself sunning in his briefs with the caption, “I’m gonna get him on the Forbes list by next year. But I’m gonna get him on the tan by next week.”

Good luck with both, bro.

Great to see you bro!!💪🏽🔝

A photo posted by Cristiano Ronaldo (@cristiano) on Jul 24, 2016 at 3:48pm PD

Bruce pens letter to Hull fans: “Desperately wanted to make it work”

YORK, ENGLAND - JULY 23: Steve Bruce manager of  Hull City ahead of the pre-season friendly match between York City and Hull City at Bootham Cresent on July 23, 2014  in York, England. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
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Many Hull City fans didn’t want Steve Bruce to leave the club, and this open letter shows why.

After leaving the club by “mutual consent” on Friday — it was first widely reported that he quit — fans protested at Hull’s game on Monday.

[ MORE: Who wins the League of Hate? ]

Bruce may’ve had his problems with Hull’s ownership, but he certainly got his supporters’ feelings right down to the core.

From the Hull Daily Mail:

My biggest regret is having to walk away but it was a decision I had to make for the sake of the club. The last 12 months have been very tough and it felt like the right step for the club to move forward in a different direction and with someone else in charge.

I desperately wanted to make it work this summer and be a Premier League manager again but, sadly, it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless, I’ve left Hull City with some fantastic memories that I’ll always cherish, including just eight weeks ago in the Championship play-off final at Wembley.

Class from the longtime boss, and we imagine he’ll have a job very soon if he wants it.

Report: Everton to activate release clause of Stoke’s Arnautovic

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28: Marko Arnautovic (1st L) of Stoke City competes for the ball against Seamus Coleman (2nd L) and Gareth Barry (1st Rof Everton during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Stoke City at Goodison Park on December 28, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)
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Everton is going to activate Marko Arnautovic‘s $16 million release clause to bring the Stoke City striker to Goodison Park, according to a report out of Austria.

Stoke had been trying to sign Arnautovic to a contract extension, but the player was reportedly prepared to play out the final year of his deal.

[ MORE: Who wins the League of Hate? ]

The huge 27-year-old Austrian has been with Stoke since 2013, and broke through with 11 Premier League goals last season.

Arnautovic would give Everton support behind Romelu Lukaku, and insurance in case the Toffees do wind up selling their Belgian striker. Everton also has Arouna Kone as a potential target forward, but Oumar Niasse is expecting to leave after less than a year at Goodison Park.

Chelsea wins the League… of Hate; Bournemouth, Leicester not hated

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  Diego Costa of Chelsea celebrates his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Chelsea at St Mary's Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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A family of English newspapers conducted its annual survey of which teams are the most hated in the Premier League, and there’s a new champion.

Manchester United has dropped to second in the table to Chelsea in what the Manchester Evening News called the “League of Hate”.

[ MORE: Rooney’s England position not set ]

According to the MEN, 10,000 fans were quizzed on their love and hate:

A national survey asked fans of each top flight club which sides they hate, and which they love, and the west London club came out as the most disliked club overall.

United, who won the dubious accolade last year, have been revealed to be the next most reviled side.

It’s no surprise that the league’s more successful sides sit atop the table while newer PL clubs like Bournemouth and Burnley are not reviled. That said, Leicester’s dream story has them 19th. How much more success do they need to have before shooting up the hate table?

Here’s the Top Five, and all results:

1) Chelsea
2) Manchester United
3) Liverpool
4) Manchester City
5) Arsenal