Brad Guzan backs young Villa defense to mature

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Aston Villa goalkeeper and U.S. international Brad Guzan believes the young defense in front of him at the Premier League club will improve thanks to their tough go last season.

Villa finished 15th last season and needed a few good results down the stretch to avoid feeling the head of relegation.

“We had a tough spell but that was what made us stronger and helped to bring out our character” Guzan told the Birmingham Mail. “When you go through those tough times you are able to help each other, pick each other up and dust each other down. You keep fighting.”

The defense at Villa Park allowed 68 goals throughout the league season, tied for the second-most in the Premier League.

“If you make mistakes it’s how you respond to the criticism that comes your way, you have to be man enough and move on. I think as a group and as a team we did a really good job of that and that will help us now in the future.”

It will be an important and crucial season for the young defensive unit.  Captain Ron Vlaar and right-back Alan Hutton are 28 years old, but aside from those two not a single defender on the Villa roster is older than 24.  Hutton probably won’t even be back next season as he looks to renew his loan spell with Real Mallorca, leaving Guzan and Vlaar to guide the roster into next season.

Vlaar saw both 23-year-old Ciaran Clark and 22-year-old Nathan Baker split time next to him in central defense, although Clark was dropped from the lineup down the stretch.

23-year-old Joe Bennett received most of the playing time down the left-hand side from manager Paul Lambert last year, and 24-year-old Matthew Lowton impressed on the right.

Guzan praised the young group’s effort, and pointed out how much of a trial-by-fire it really was.

“You need the help of defenders, and you need them to be brave because in England there are lots of balls coming into the box” said the 28-year-old keeper. “I think they improved massively. The guys in front of me did a really good job coming into a situation that maybe wasn’t the easiest. For them to learn as they went along – some new guys, some younger faces that have learnt on the job – was a tough ask. But they just got on with it, and that’s a test of their mental strength and focus.”

Villa have added two more youngsters to the defensive unit this summer, and they will be given a full preseason to prepare with Guzan and the rest of the squad.  20-year-old Jores Okore joined Lambert’s men from FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark for just over £4 million ($6 million), and 22-year-old Antonio Luna came over from Spain’s Sevilla.

Conte: Chelsea “ready to fight to the end”

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Following Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Spurs and Tuesday’s blowout of Southampton — the 4-2 score line didn’t tell the story of the second half — Antonio Conte is fired up for Chelsea to complete its Premier League title run.

The manager admits that his side was under pressure after Spurs narrowed the table gap to four points last week, but the wins have eased the Blues’ burden.

Chelsea had lost two of four PL matches before the weekend.

From Football.London:

“I think we passed a big, big psychological step after the defeat to United. We lost three points and had to prepare a semi-final against Tottenham and then another tough game in the league. In that moment we had a really important test and our answer was very good.

“We must think that this race is open, we have reached the final of the FA Cup. The situation in the league is totally open. We are ready to fight to the end. We must be proud for the job we are doing and to fight to the end.”

Spurs can bring the gap back to four with a win at Crystal Palace on Tuesday, but have a tougher run-in with five matches to play. As long as the gap is within six points, anything is possible, but the Blues have certainly answered the bell over the past four days.

Chelsea: Big win “feels like a massive step” to title

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“It feels like a massive step to be honest,” said game-changing goal scorer Gary Cahill of Chelsea’s 4-2 win over Southampton at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

Chelsea’s Premier League lead stands at seven points after the win, which saw a dominant second half from the hosts.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Perhaps it was cued up by Cahill’s first half stoppage time header, which boosted the Blues to a 2-1 lead just before the whistle.

Cahill darted in front of Diego Costa‘s scissor kick attempt to power a header past Fraser Forster.

“(Costa) tried to claim it afterward as well,” Cahill said. “When the ball’s just lofted over, it’s dying to be attacked. We went into halftime with our tails up and it was a big boost for us.”

Cesc Fabregas said Southampton surprised the Blues tactically, leading to an entertaining first half that could’ve seen either side ahead before half.

“We needed a little bit of time to adapt to what they did because we prepared for something else,” he said.

Fabregas said the win was big with second-place Spurs watching at home. Tottenham plays at Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

“We needed a good response after the Man United game. We have to keep going with five games to go, to keep it up and make the last push. It would be a big shame if now we relaxed. We just have to push now more than ever,” he said.

“It’s a statement for (Spurs), for us, for everyone, but most of all for us.”
Eden Hazard agreed.
“We scored four beautiful goals,” said the Belgian, who scored the game’s first goal. “It’s good to play before and put pressure on them.”

Chelsea 4-2 Southampton: Blues send message in win

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  • Costa nabs two goals, assist
  • Hazard, Cahill score
  • Chelsea ups table lead to seven

Gary Cahill‘s first-half stoppage time marker was a momentum shifter as Chelsea topped Southampton to increase its Premier League table lead with a 4-2 win on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Cahill, Hazard, Fabregas react to “massive step” ]

Diego Costa scored twice and Eden Hazard also scored for the Blues, and Cesc Fabregas moved into second place on the Premier League’s all-time assists list with a helper on Costa’s first goal.

Former Chelsea men Oriol Romeu and Ryan Bertrand scored for Saints, as Southampton remains ninth with 40 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

There were early lively moments for both sides, as Saints’ Manolo Gabbiadini attempted to back up Antonio Conte‘s pre-match praise as one of the best left foots in the world.

Chelsea found the opener through Hazard, as Costa held possession into the right of the box before cutting back to find Belgian. Fraser Forster couldn’t get low quick enough to stop Hazard’s low shot, and it was 1-0.

Romeu, clearly buoyed by JPW’s feature piece earlier this week, bagged an equalized off a corner kick. Gabbiadini sidled up to the ball at the back post, and pushed it off Thibaut Courtois into the path of the former Chelsea man.

Sofiane Boufal was also dangerous for Saints, and won a free for James Ward-Prowse that amounted to a corner kick from the edge of the 16. Courtois flew forward to put the ball free.

N'Golo Kante had his turn to start a threat, and Forster’s block of his cross only queued up a pair of opportunities between Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic.

Cahill made it 2-1 in stoppage time, darting in front of Costa’s scissor kick attempt to nod Marcos Alonso‘s headed pass into the goal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Chelsea added to its lead in the first 10 minutes of the second half, with Saints allowing Cesc Fabregas a bit too much room inside the box. The Spaniard chipped a pass to countryman Costa to make it a two-goal lead.

Forster made a good save on a tricky Costa attempt in the 71st minute.

Corner kicks were not easily defended by Chelsea, and Steven Davis came close to pulling a goal back in the 79th minute. A moment later, Forster came out to stop Kante with a wild arm save after Hazard led a lightning counterattack off the ensuing corner.

Bertrand headed a goal home in stoppage time when he got in front of Cahill, but the damage was done.

AT HALF: Chelsea strikes twice to build 2-1 lead over Saints

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Gary Cahill‘s stoppage time goal has Chelsea leading Southampton 2-1 after 45 minutes at Stamford Bridge.

Eden Hazard scored the match’s first goal, with Saints’ Oriol Romeu equalizing in the 24th minute.

A win would send Chelsea seven points clear of second place Spurs, which has played one less match than the Blues.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

There were early lively moments for both sides, as Saints’ Manolo Gabbiadini attempted to back up Antonio Conte‘s pre-match praise as one of the best left foots in the world.

Chelsea found the opener through Hazard, as Costa held possession into the right of the box before cutting back to find Belgian. Fraser Forster couldn’t get low quick enough to stop Hazard’s low shot, and it was 1-0.

Romeu, clearly buoyed by JPW’s feature piece earlier this week, bagged an equalized off a corner kick. Gabbiadini sidled up to the ball at the back post, and pushed it off Thibaut Courtois into the path of the former Chelsea man.

Sofiane Boufal was also dangerous for Saints, and won a free for James Ward-Prowse that amounted to a corner kick from the edge of the 16. Courtois flew forward to put the ball free.

N'Golo Kante had his turn to start a threat, and Forster’s block of his cross only queued up a pair of opportunities between Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic.

Cahill made it 2-1 in stoppage time, darting in front of Costa’s scissor kick attempt to nod Marcos Alonso‘s headed pass into the goal.