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.

 

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.