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:

Chelsea 1-0 West Brom: Costa’s 12th of year extends unbeaten run to nine

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 11:  Diego Costa of Chelsea scores the opening goal past Ben Foster of West Bromwich Albion during the Premier League match between Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on December 11, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Chelsea were held in check for much of Sunday’s encounter but Diego Costa‘s second-half moment of magic provided the Blues with a 1-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge.

[ MORE: Man United-Tottenham, Saints-Middlesbrough in action on Sunday ]

The Blues striker came up with a key dispossession of Gareth McAuley with 15 minutes remaining in regular time, before calmly slotting his chance past Ben Foster for the lead. Costa has now scored 12 goals this season, which leads the entire Premier League.

Chelsea moves three points clear of Arsenal at the top of PL once more after securing its ninth-consecutive victory on Sunday. The Blues have scored 23 goals in that span while conceded just twice.

The visitors nearly caught Chelsea napping in the 26th minute as Salomon Rondon pulled a left-footed chance just wide of Thibaut Courtois and the Blues net against the run of play.

Despite a healthy spell of possession early on, the Blues struggled to break down the West Brom backline for much of the opening stanza. Antonio Conte‘s group mustered up just one effort on target as the Baggies packed numbers behind the ball to limit the Chelsea attack.

While the opportunities were limited in the first half, Diego Costa nearly broke the deadlock on 38 minutes when Pedro provided an excellent service into the penalty area, with the cross narrowly missing the head of the Spanish striker.

Watch Live: Man United vs. Spurs | Saints vs. Middlesbrough (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 10:  Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur holds off Michael Carrick of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane on April 10, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Manchester United hosts Tottenham from Old Trafford (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in a clash that provides both clubs the opportunity to remain in sight of the Premier League’s leaders..

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Jose Mourinho’s side enters Sunday on a five-match unbeaten run in PL play, however, the Red Devils come in frustrated after dropping points in three straight draws. For Spurs, Mauricio Pochettino and co. have won two straight in all competitions, scoring eight goals in the process, following the side’s first PL defeat to Chelsea two weeks back.

For United, the squad will see many regulars on the bench to start Sunday’s encounter, including Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney. Meanwhile, Tottenham will look to Harry Kane and Son to keep the team’s attack flying on all cylinders.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea, Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Darmian, Carrick (C), Herrera, Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Martial, Ibrahimovic. Subs: Romero, Bailly, Blind, Fellaini, Mata, Rashford, Rooney.

Spurs: Lloris (C); Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Wanyama, Dembele; Eriksen, Dele, Son; Kane. Subs: Vorm, Wimmer, Davies, Dier, Winks, Sissoko, Nkoudou.


Southampton hosts Middlesbrough from St. Mary’s Stadium (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET available online via NBCSports.com) as the Boro look to create separation between them and the league’s bottom sides.

Both sides enter Sunday winless in three of their last four PL fixtures, however, a victory for either side would push them closer to the top half of the table.

The Saints will have much depth on the bench if necessary, including Shane Long and Nathan Redmond, while Cristian Stuani leads the way up front for the Boro.

Southampton: Forster, Clasie, Fonte (C), Rodriguez, Tadic, Romeu, Martina, Ward-Prowse, Van Dijk, Boufal, McQueen. Subs: Taylor, Yoshida, Long, Davis, Reed, Bertrand, Redmond.

Middlesbrough: Valdes, Barragan, Chambers, Gibson, Fabio, Clayton, De Roon, Forshaw, Stuani, Fischer, Rhodes. Subs: Guzan, Bernardo, Nsue, Leadbitter, Traore, Downing, Nugent.

Dier: Euros, injuries affected form early in season

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Eric Dier of Tottenham Hotspur (L) and Michail Antonio of West Ham United (R) battle for the ball in teh air during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United at White Hart Lane on November 19, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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Despite starting 2016/17 with just one defeat in their first 14 Premier League matches, one of Tottenham’s key figures from a season ago has gotten off to a quiet start.

[ MORE: Spurs visit Manchester United, Liverpool hosts West Ham ]

While Spurs currently sit fifth in the PL table, Eric Dier has been a shell of himself in the early going of the campaign for Mauricio Pochettino‘s group, and the Englishman believes it’s likely because of the long summer at EURO 2016.

[ MORE: Leicester shock Man City in Saturday’s PL slate ]

The 22-year-old has been tasked with playing multiple positions thus far, as injuries forced the midfielder back into defense at times this season. However, Dier remains confident that he will pick up his play and can help Tottenham no matter which role he plays.

“It is completely up to the manager where I play. What is more important is making sure I’m feeling good mentally,” Dier said. “That is more important to me. If I get back to that, where I have a good feeling and my confidence is back, then whatever position I am playing in, I will be able to play.

“I feel that I am getting it back – last weekend and against CSKA. I am just trying to get everything back to the levels of last season.

“It has been a difficult start for me this season – it has been there for everyone to see.

“It has been tough coming back late from the Euros because I haven’t really been able to get going. Then I got injured a couple of games into the season and that halted me again. And when Toby got injured I played at the back again.

“This is football and these things happen to everyone. It has not been a ­catastrophe – it has just been a bit of a low start.

“I don’t think there has ever been a really low point. It is just about getting back to where I want to be.”

Dier notched three goals and two assists in the PL a season ago, however, the young midfielder has yet to hit the scoresheet in 2016 despite appearing in 13 matches.

Sunday’s test against Manchester United would be an ideal time for Dier to find the back of the net as Spurs look to build off of last weekend’s 5-0 thrashing of Swansea.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. West Brom (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea and Joleon Lescott of West Brom battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on November 22, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea hosts West Bromwich Albion from Stamford Bridge (Watch live, 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blues look to extend their eight-match win streak.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

The Blues make one change from last weekend’s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Manchester City as Cesc Fabregas makes way in the starting XI for Nemanja Matic.

Antonio Conte‘s side will be opposed by a West Brom side that is unbeaten in their last four Premier League matches. The Baggies remain unchanged from last week’s 3-1 win over Watford as the side looks to move above eighth in the table.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill (c); Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard. Subs: Begovic, Aina, Ivanovic, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

West Brom: Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Nyom; Yacob, Fletcher (c); Brunt, Morrison, Phillips; Rondon. Subs: Palmer; Olsson, Robson-Kanu, Gardner, McClean, Galloway, Chadli.