Paul Lambert’s youth revolution sees five new faces arrive at Villa Park

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Last season Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert convinced chairman Randy Lerner to dole out £7 million for a relatively unknown 21 year old commodity out of Racing Genk. At the time the fee seemed a bit rich but fast forward nine months and there is not a club in the world that would pass on such a cut-rate price for Christian Benteke.

And while the Benteke deal is Lambert’s shrewdest to date, a deeper look at his portfolio suggests the Villa manager has a keen insight on picking up young, quality talent in the transfer market.

Last season he snapped up 22 year old Matthew Lowton from Sheffield United for a fee of £3 million, 21 year old Ashley Westwood from Crewe Alexandria for a fee of £2 million and 22 year old Yacouba Sylla from Clermont Foot for  £2 million. Lowton quickly established himself as one of the best young right-backs in the league while Westwood made the holding midfield role his own and Sylla impressed in the same position with a marauding style that brought bite to the claret and blue.

In addition to bringing in new players, Lambert has recently re-signed the talented youth in place before his arrival at Villa Park, penning 22 year old defender Nathan Baker and 21 year old winger Andreas Weimann to new deals this summer. And as the youth are locked down, the non-impacting veterans – James Collins (29), Jean Makoun(30) and Stephen Warnock (31) – have all been put to pasture.

It’s all part of Lambert’s youth revolution, which has continued this summer by bringing in five new faces all under the age of 23 – Antonio Luna (22), Aleksandar Tonev (22), Jores Okore (20), Leandro Bacuna (21) and Nicklas Helenius (22).

So, which one of these players could be the next Benteke or Weimann? Let’s take a closer look at each one and note their potential impact.

Antonio Luna

Luna signed with the West Midlands on a three year deal from Sevilla, where the left-back made his debut in 2010 and went on to make 20 appearances over three seasons. After a perceived drop in play he was sent on loan to Almeria in 2011 (making 13 appearances) and to Mallorca last season (making 10 appearances). Although not expected to come in and start for the Villians, if Luna hits form do not be surprised if Lambert’s plants the Spaniard at left-back and moves Baker into the center of the defense.

Aleksandar Tonev

Bulgarian midfielder Tonev comes to Villa from Lech Poznan where he netted seven times in three years. The winger played alongside Villa midfielder (and now assistant development coach) Stilian Petrov in the Bulgarian national team and hopes to emulate the impact of Petrov and fellow countrymen Dimitar Berbatov in the Premier League. Like Luna, Tonev is unlikely to start but will provide competition for Weimann and Gabriel Agbonglahor and is likely to be utilized by Lambert as a spark late in matches.

Jores Okore

Okore (pictured) is a big, physical center-back who played a key part of FC Nordsjaelland’s strong run in the Danish Superliga and earned vital experience in this season’s Champions League stint. He is fast, big, strong and good in the air but his youth makes him prone to positioning mistakes. Okore may not start immediately but he very well could prove the most valuable of the lot in a few years down the road. For this season, however, he’ll serve as serious competition for Ron Vlaar, Baker and Joseph Bennett.

Leandro Bacuna

Leandro Bacuna is a pacy and versatile Dutch midfielder came through the youth ranks at Groningen and spent four seasons with the senior side making 109 appearances and scoring 10 goals. At 6’1″ Bacuna is physically imposing player prone to more of a power orientated approach that sometimes finds his skill lacking. His engine could see him inserted anywhere in the midfield but Lambert is most likely to let him challenge Westwood, Sylla and Fabian Delph in the center of the park.

Nicklas Helenius

Helenius is a striker from Danish League side Aalborg BK, where he made 102 appearances and scored 40 goals. The Danish international is a threat in the air due to his towering height (6’5″) and also on the ground where he possesses a delicate touch in the box. The 22 year old would make a fearsome strike partner for Benteke, could be a wonderful target for both Weimann and  Agbonglahor and may be the man who prompts Villa to cut ties with Darren Bent.

 

MLS Power Rankings — Week 3: Gap developing at the top

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We’re just three weeks in, and while there’s still obviously gobs of time for teams to right the ship, we are also seeing who’s for real at the top of the table, and while the table doesn’t always show it, we’re starting to learn more and more about each team that picks up the points.

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Atlanta continues to win, still yet to lose in MLS play three matches into its inaugural season, and Portland bounced back to prove they’re still in control. At about the 7-8 mark there looks to be a clear gap developing. Can anyone buck the trend moving forward? Your updated power rankings:


TEAM RANKING (Last Wk)

 

22 (19)

21 (22)

20 (21)

DC United: Six goals conceded, none scored in their last two. Not much else needs to be said.

Minnesota United: Their very first MLS point was an important one, holding on down a man. Still a very long way to go.

New England Revolution: More of the same for New England who admittedly had a tall task against FC Dallas but couldn’t hold on.

19 (20) Columbus Crew: Could this week be the one that starts the climb? Six shots on target out of seven total, that’s efficient. Still need a result against a better team to back it up.
18 (18) Real Salt Lake: No Glad, No Plata, down a man, still almost pulled it out. Still, the defending was poor at times a man down and Beckerman knows better. Need to start picking up points.
17 (16) Philadelphia Union: 14 shots, just two on target. That’s the type of day it was in Orlando. Just a point from three is worrying.
16 (12) Chicago Fire: Ouch. It’s hard to take much of anything from a big loss to a smoking hot team playing 79 minutes with 10 men. Still…that one will hurt.
15 (17) Montreal Impact: They held firm against a good NYCFC attack, and actually did the coming back for once.
14 (14) Vancouver Whitecaps: In a vacuum, no shame in losing to Tigres or Toronto, but now they’ve got a bit of poor form with the Galaxy coming to town and then the CCL second leg. Will want to avoid a string of bad results.
13 (15) LA Galaxy: All road wins are good wins. That said, beating a weakened RSL by a goal after playing a man down the entire second half is not exactly convincing. They were second best until Beckerman went off and managed just 4 shots on target.
12 (13)
Sporting Kansas City: Have conceded just one goal. They have a plan, and it’s working so far. Just need to figure it out on the other end.
11 (5) Colorado Rapids: Give the Loons credit, but a draw against 10-man Minnesota is not a good look. The defending has been poor.
10 (7) San Jose Earthquakes: Bit tough to figure out this San Jose team early on, but with Godoy held in check, they were outshot 15-5 by KC.
9 (6) Houston Dynamo: Caught Portland at a bad time. This is still a good team, but maybe with some soul-searching to do after a big loss.
9 (10)
Orlando City: An extra week of rest helped Orlando and Cyle Larin did Cyle Larin things. Six possible points, six taken. Still need to prove themselves on the road after last season.
7 (9) Seattle Sounders: Just like Portland, Seattle got back to what it does best, and that involved Dempsey and Morris scoring. The attack looked dangerous
6 (4) New York City FC: Montreal hacked NYCFC to death and it worked. They’re still a good team, but will have to figure out how to win ugly too.
5 (8) Toronto FC: A very solid bounce-back win without Giovinco, who will be back after the break. The rough start appears to be more of a blip.
4 (3) New York Red Bulls: The ugly wins finally came back to haunt them. Hard to take much from a cross-country road trip, but they fell short in a tough test.
3 (11) Atlanta United: You betcha. This team’s for real. Well, they certainly appear to be with Josef Martinez on fire, but now he’s injured. Now what?
2 (2) FC Dallas: A win over New England continued FC Dallas’s hot start. It’s mind-boggling how little attention Max Urruti gets.
1 (1) Portland Timbers: That’s more like it. The scary Portland attack bounced back by putting four goals past 2-0-0 Houston.

Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez injured on international duty

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Atlanta United is sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings three weeks into its inaugural Major League Soccer season, and the bite appears to be every bit as fearsome as the bark for the newcomers.

Now, the club must contend with its first bit of truly scary news.

In-form striker Josef Martinez was injured on international duty with Venezuela and is heading back to the United States for evaluation. The report says he tweaked his left thigh, and after the match head coach Rafael Dudamel said he would release Martinez back to Atlanta, saying, “I do not think it’s good for Josef to travel. This muscle tightness can take 10 days of recovery.”

Martinez was subbed off of Venezuela’s match with Peru in the 59th minute, replaced by Yangel Herrera and walking off under his own power. Venezuela drew the match 2-2, blowing a 2-goal halftime lead and leaving them bottom of the table, 14 points back of the intercontinental playoff spot.

Obviously that 10-day recovery is more ideal than any other long-term prognosis, but it would still see him miss a road visit to Seattle next Friday. The 23-year-old has a whopping five games in his first three MLS games with Atlanta and has been a force. Brandon Vazquez and Bryan Rochez are the two options currently on Atlanta’s roster to replace the Venezuelan in the lineup.

Martinez was signed on loan from Serie A side Torino, but the move was made permanent last week.

Kevin de Bruyne questionable for injury-laden Belgium

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Belgium, already without superstar Eden Hazard for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Greece, will now be without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who picked up an injury in training on Friday and will miss both the match against Greece and the subsequent friendly against Russia three days later…maybe.

The Belgian National Team official Twitter account sent out a quote from manager Roberto Martinez that confirmed De Bruyne would miss the pair of matches, but the tweet was quickly deleted.

Instead, this one was pushed out in its place, correcting his availability and also updating the type of injury:

Should De Bruyne miss out, it means Belgium would likely rely heavily on Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas for the playmaking duties, with midfielder Radja Nainggolan potentially taking on a more attacking role as well.

Belgium and Martinez also confirmed that right-back Thomas Meunier will miss out after failing to recover from an ankle injury, while Marouane Fellaini‘s status is unknown after he was held out of Thursday’s training session.

The injury also leaves De Bruyne’s status for Manchester City up in the air, with a pair of massive games in London in quick succession after the injury break. City visits Arsenal next Sunday, followed by a hop over to Stanford Bridge on Wednesday.

Landon Donovan retires again, this time for good

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After coming out of retirement last fall to join the LA Galaxy for one more shot at an MLS Cup, Landon Donovan has once again called time on his career, saying he’s certain he will not play again.

With a number of other ventures on his plate, the USMNT all-time leading scorer is looking forward to spending his time elsewhere.

“Yeah, I’m done,” Donovan said. “I’m done. No more playing for me. I have not [gone public with it yet]. But that is definitely the case.”

Donovan scored one goal in nine games for the LA Galaxy in his comeback bid, with the club ravaged by injuries and still gunning for the Cup. However, after the season was over with a loss to Colorado in the Conference Semifinals, the Galaxy confirmed it was nothing more than a short-term stopgap.

“With Landon, when he came back, it was always going to be a short-term thing,”team president Chris Klein said to the L.A. Times in December. “He’s enjoying what he’s doing and we see we’re comfortable in the direction that we’re headed.”

In January, reports claimed Real Salt Lake had offered Donovan a Designated Player contract, but it appears he’s turned it down, and will now have time to concentrate on his other ventures. Off the field, Donovan is an analyst on Fox’s soccer coverage, is on the advisory committee for the Los Angeles 2024 Olympics bid, and has joined the ownership group attempting to bring an expansion MLS team to San Diego.