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:

Watch Live: West Ham vs. Southampton (Lineups & Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21:  Manager of West Ham United, Slaven Bilic look on during the  EFL Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Accrington Stanley at the London Stadium on September 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The Hammers are in a bad spot. Five matches into the season, they have just three points – one third their haul at this point last season. They host Southampton at the Olympic Stadium at 11am E.T. live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Southampton isn’t in much better shape. They own just five points thus far and sit in 14th, and manager Claude Puel has slotted  in-form striker Charlie Austin into the starting lineup looking to build on a pair of wins over the last week.

WATCH LIVE: West Ham vs. Southampton live online at NBCSports.com

Austin scored the only goal in Saints’ 1-0 win over Swansea last weekend, their first of the league season, and then scored again in the 2-0 win over Swansea in the EFL Cup midweek. That gives Austin four goals in his last three games following a Europa League brace two weeks ago.

For West Ham, Slaven Bilic has a problem at left-back yet again after Arthur Makuasu, Aaron Cresswell‘s replacement, went down with a knee injury. Newly-arrived Alvaro Arbeloa will move from his usual right side to deputize. Defensive issues have plagued the Hammers thus far, having conceded 11 goals in their last three league games.

LINEUPS

West Ham: Adrian; Nordtveit, Reid, Ogbonna, Arbeloa; Noble; Antonio, Kouyate, Lanzini, Payet; Zaza.
Subs: Randolph, Byram, Oxford, Obiang, Fernandes, Feghouli, Fletcher.

Southampton: Forster; Cedric, Fonte, Van Dijk, Bertrand; Romeu, Højbjerg; Davis, Tadić, Redmond; Austin.
Subs: McCarthy, Yoshida, Clasie, Long, Martina, Ward-Prowse, Hesketh.

Joe Hart, Torino down Roma 3-1 in early Serie A game

BERGAMO, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Goalkeeper of FC Torino Joe Hart gestures during the Serie a match between Atalanta BC and FC Torino at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on September 11, 2016 in Bergamo, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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In today’s early Serie A game, Joe Hart and Torino held down Roma to win 3-1 at Stadio Olimpico to move into the top half of the table.

Roma dominated the stat sheets, holding 69% possession and out-passing Torino 466-174, but were wasteful in front of net, only able to put just five of their 21 their shots on target.

Andrea Belotti scored just eight minutes in to put Torino ahead, and Iago Falque bagged a brace with goals 13 minutes apart in the second half to seal it. For all its possession and movement in the attacking half, Roma could only manage a goal on a penalty, scored by Francesco Totti, his 250th career goal, all coming for one club.

Manchester City loanee Joe Hart commanded a solid performance by Torino’s back line, with the home side managing a whopping 22 tackles and 33 clearances. Roma actually out-performed Torino on the expected goals front, proving Hart’s influence.

The win, the club’s first since late August, pushes Torino up to eight in the Serie A table on eight points. They have conceded just a single goal – the Totti penalty – in their last three matches. It’s a far cry from the 2-1 loss to Atalanta in Hart’s debut, in which a mistake by the England international allowed Atalanta to score the winning goal.

On the other side, Arsenal loanee Wojciech Szczesny made a mistake to gift Torino their early goal. The result for Roma is a big blow to their hopes at challenging for the title, dropping them five points back of leaders Juventus and four behind Napoli.

Championship match features nightmarish halftime shenanigans

DERBY, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Nigel Pearson, manager of Derby County looks on during the Sky Bet Championship match between Derby County and Blackburn Rovers at iPro Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Derby, England. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
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On Saturday, Derby County fell at home to Blackburn 2-1, with all three goals scored in a furious four-minute span midway through the second half.

It’s been a nightmare start to the season for both clubs, with the clubs in 20th and 22nd on a combined three wins.

That, however, was not the most disturbing thing on display at Pride Park Stadium. The halftime show featured a show with a character from a child’s bad dream. A man in a fish suit swallowed a person whole then spit him back out sans clothing. But don’t take our word for it:

Have fun sleeping tonight.

After a pair of La Liga draws, all is not well at Real Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 21: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF grimaces in pain during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Villarreal CF at Santiago Bernabeu stadium on September 21, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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It’s amazing how results go hand-in-hand with off the field mood for the top teams in the world.

There is no club where that seems to be more true than Real Madrid. The team has drawn two in a row, first a 1-1 finish against Villareal at the Bernabeu that saw Los Blancos pump out 23 shots, but put only six on target. Then, they drew 2-2 Saturday with this year’s darlings Las Palmas out on the Canary Islands, crumbling at the back by blowing a pair of leads.

All this still leaves them atop the La Liga table, a point above Barcelona, and yet the wheels appear to be coming loose.

Things always start with Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, and that was the case on Saturday, when the superstar was withdrawn by head coach Zinedine Zidane in the 74th minute, and appeared to be visibly upset with the decision. Zidane told media after the game he was looking ahead to Tuesday’s Champions League matchup with Borussia Dortmund, saying, “He [Ronaldo] always wants to play and be out there on the pitch, but I’ve also got to think about the player and he needed to rest and think about Tuesday.”

Ronaldo did not speak to the media following the match.

Always in his teammate’s shadow is Gareth Bale, but things aren’t going well for him either. According to a report by The Sun, Bale has increased security after his fiance’s family has reportedly been targeted for arson attacks by a drug gang. In addition, Bale is reportedly unhappy after being substituted himself in the 70th minute of the draw with Villareal, according to reports in Spain. There have been reports for a while that his agent is shopping the Welshman to top clubs like Manchester United.

“We’re relaxed,” Zidane said after the Las Palmas draw. “We are working hard and focused on what we’re doing. We have to realize that you can’t always win, but we’re on the right track.”