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.

 

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”