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Premier League Preview: Aston Villa

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Each day from now until the beginning of the Premier League season, we will preview two teams from England’s top flight. You can view them all here at PST Preview central. Don’t forget, the 2013-14 PL season begins on August 17th, and for the first-time ever you can watch every game live on NBC Sports.

Aston Villa has never been outside the Premier League since its inception in the 1992-93 season, but it’s been a little too close for comfort the past two years. The team hasn’t won a trophy since the 2001 UEFA Intertoto Cup, and despite a four-year run of top-10 domestic finishes, things seem to be trending downward at Villa Park.

Transfers In: M Aleksandar Tonev (Lech Poznań, Poland), D Antonio Luna (Sevilla, Spain), GK Jed Steer (Norwich City), D Jores Okore (Nordsjælland, Denmark), M Leandro Bacuna (FC Groningen, Netherlands), F Nicklas Helenius (Aalborg, Denmark)

Transfers Out: M Stiliyan Petrov (retired), F Brett Holman (Al Nasr, UAE), D Derrick Williams (Bristol City, League One), D Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest, Championship), D Richard Dunne (Queens Park Rangers, Championship), M Jean Makoun (Stade Rennais, France), M Courtney Cameron (Torquay United, League Two), GK Andy Marshall (released)

source: Getty ImagesKey Player: The most important name for Villa is one that nearly found itself in the section above this one. Striker Christian Benteke (pictured) was the team’s top scorer last year as it narrowly avoided relegation, and he was linked with Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Arsenal in the off-season after he handed in a transfer request. In the end, he decided to sign a new deal to keep him at Aston Villa until 2017.

On the other end of the field, American goalkeeper Brad Guzan also played a large role in Villa’s successful fight against relegation to the Championship. His performance earned him the team vote for 2011-12 Player of the Year. If Villa is going to stay in the top flight again, he will play a crucial part in this season.

Manager: Scotsman Paul Lambert took over from countryman Alex McLeish at the start of last season, but he only finished one spot higher in the table. Lambert is on the clock right from the start of this campaign — he is the only manager to start a second season in charge since Martin O’Neill left the club in 2010.

Lambert has played a lot of young players in preseason but tempered fans’ expectations of them and asked for patience, which seems to indicate that he expects another tough season ahead. If that’s true, Villa could very well finish it with a different manager than the one who starts it.

Outlook: It’s going to be a battle to stay in the Premier League this season for Aston Villa. It could take another special individual performance from Benteke and Guzan to keep the team afloat. If injuries hit either of those two, survival will be nearly impossible.

MORE: Read all the Premier League previews for each team here

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.