Aston Villa v Liverpool - Premier League

Brad Guzan’s heroics vital to Aston Villa — and to the USMNT

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There are plenty of stories to be found in Aston Villa’s 3-1 victory over Arsenal on Saturday. One of the biggest, of course, is that of the way Anthony Taylor lost control of the match early on, leading to several questionable decisions and the unwarranted sending-off of Laurent Koscielny. There’s also the off-the-pitch drama, which centers on the lack of players brought in during the transfer window. A home loss to a club that finished 15th last season isn’t going to calm Arsenal supporters’ fears, particularly with the first leg of their Champions League qualifier coming up next week. Certainly many stories will be written about what went wrong during their opening match, and speculating on who might be brought in to help repair the damage.

There are also the stories to be written from the Villa perspective. Paul Lambert started off this transfer season with a bang, bringing in seven new players, but started just one of his fresh faces against Arsenal. Did the team’s experience playing together last season help them hang on for all three points? Or was it simply Lambert’s consistent emphasis on attacking play? But while the exuberance of this young Aston Villa side may be a joy to watch, it means that sometimes the biggest Villa flaw is overlooked: its haphazard defense.

Villa’s defense has been all over the map for the past couple seasons, and for much of the opening match it appeared as though nothing had changed. While his goal in the final minutes of the match may have made many label Antonio Luna’s league debut as “stunning,” it overshadowed his defensive capabilities at left-back. Ron Vlaar allowed himself to be pulled out of position, enabling Olivier Giroud to score the opening goal for Arsenal. Nathan Baker came off early with yet another head injury, being replaced by the inconsistent Ciaran Clark, who did little to dissuade Arsenal from threatening the goal.

But that’s where Aston Villa’s hero of last season, Brad Guzan, comes in. It’s difficult to remember now, but Guzan was not the starting goalkeeper when Villa kicked off last season. Instead, it was Shay Given between the sticks for the first two matches, during which he conceded a combined four goals to West Ham and Everton. That led to Guzan being given the gloves for the League Cup match against Tranmere Rovers and the rest, as they say, is history. Guzan started the remaining 36 league games, making 114 saves and being named Villa’s Player of the Year for the 2012-2013 season.

Despite Christian Benteke’s 23 goals last season, Guzan was also the top player for the fans, with the goalkeeper collecting the Supporters’ Player of the Year award as well. Although the Belgian’s goals undoubtedly helped Villa stay up last season, it was Guzan’s ability to keep the opposition’s out that was ultimately most important. His impressive heroics behind the shambolic Villa defense did not go unnoticed by Jurgen Klinsmann, either, and the American was rewarded with starts against Mexico and Costa Rica in World Cup Qualifying.

This season’s first match should further convince Klinsmann that Tim Howard cannot be the presumptive favorite between the sticks for the United States. Sure, Guzan did not keep a clean sheet, but neither did Howard for Everton — and clean sheets aren’t the only factor that caps should be based upon. Guzan put in an impressive performance against Arsenal today, particularly after Koscielny’s sending off. Arsenal may have been down a man but they were bent on scoring an equalizer, and multiple shots found their way through the Villa backline. It was only thanks to the heroics of Guzan — in particular one block which looked as though the keeper saved it with a particularly sensitive part of his anatomy — that Villa managed to stay in front.

It was Tim Howard that started the USMNT qualifier against Honduras in June, and Howard who played the friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina last week. In between, Nick Rimando took the gloves during the Gold Cup. But it’s Guzan, who at almost 29 years old is reaching his goalkeeping prime, that should be the one in goal should the United States reach the 2014 World Cup. His command of the area, his distribution, and, most of all, his ability to mop up the mistakes of an incredibly shaky back line demonstrate his worth — both to country and to club.

Leicester fan will win $50,000 from $10 bet if Foxes win Premier League

Leicester’s Jamie Vardy celebrates after scoring against Manchester United, his eleventh consecutive goal in the Premier League, during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Manchester United at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. Vardy becomes the first man to score in 11 consecutive English Premier League soccer matches after finding the back of the net against Manchester United today.(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
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As their odds of winning the Premier League title continue to be slashed, tales of Leicester City fans set to win an incredible amount of cash continue.

The latest story is a beauty.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired” ]

On the eve of the 2015-16 Premier League season one Leicester City fan, Chloe Cope, decided to put $10 on her side to win the title. The odds were 5,000 -1. So, with the Foxes five points clear at the top of the table with just 13 games to go, the first league title in Leicester’s 132 year history would not only bring unbeliavable amounts of jubilation to the East Midlands city but also plenty of cash for its fans. $50,000 for this Miss Cope, in fact.

The story gets even better. Check this out.

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Miss Cope’s flutter on her beloved Foxes was actually her first-ever bet. She opened up an online betting account last summer in the UK with Sky Bet and was rewarded a free $30 bet which she used to make a bet that Leicester would finish in the top six this season. That’s virtually assured so she will win another $637.

The two bets she made back on August 7 2015 are shown in the Tweet below via Jacqui Oatley.

A few other Leicester fans are also in line to win plenty of cash, but this one seems to have the most riding on it.

Will big changes in Europe threaten UEFA Champions League’s future?

FC Barcelona, 2014-15 UEFA Champions League winners
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With talk of the UEFA Champions League being threatened by a “super league” of some sort, that notion has been undermined by some of Europe’s top teams.

For now.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI?

On Wednesday in Paris the European Clubs’ Association (ECA) met at its 16th annual congress and confirmed it will seek to change the way the UEFA Champions League and Europa League is run when the current term of agreement cycle expires at the end of the 2017-18 season.

With over 200 member clubs the ECA represents many of the biggest teams on the planet with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Chelsea all included.

In the past there has been a growing notion for a European “super league” to replace the Champions League and that perennial European giants should not have to rely on qualifying for Europe via their domestic competitions.

That is one of the factors currently being discussed by the ECA, as they released the following statement after the congress in France this week.

“In light of the upcoming 2018-21 UEFA Club Competition Cycle, the clubs are currently discussing the future of UEFA’s main club competitions, namely the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League. As in the past, the clubs are in constant dialogue with UEFA to further develop and improve both competitions. All ECA Member Clubs have gathered in informal working groups to exchange initial thoughts and ideas.”

[ MORE: Reports claim Mourinho to United is “done deal”

The current ECA chairman and chairman of Bayern Munich, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, also spoke about the need to revamp both club competitions.

“I believe both ECA and UEFA are interested in an evolution of the competitions. Stagnation means regression,” Rummenigge said. “We have always jointly looked into ways to further develop and improve the competitions. It is important to find a good and balanced solution for everyone involved.”

So, overall, it seems that for now both ECA and UEFA is willing to work together to improve the current format of the UCL rather than go their separate ways and the ECA member clubs beginning their own competition, as had been mooted by Rummenigge and other high-ranking officials in the past.

What changes could be discussed for the 2018-21 UEFA Club Competition Cycle?

For me, it seems like it would be a good idea to somehow reduce the number of UCL teams who enter the group stage. That would help it preserve its elite status and potential shave two matchdays off the schedule to lessen the pressure on teams. Currently 32 teams qualify in eight groups of four teams and a total of 78 teams from across UEFA’s 54 member nations qualify for the UCL each season. 46 fall by the wayside in the qualifying rounds and many of those teams are too small to ever dream about getting anywhere near the group stages.

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Perhaps just having one playoff round to make the UCL and limiting the number of spots for nations with lower UEFA coefficients is the way to go. That way those nations would back their teams competing in the Europa League and that competition will gain more prestige as a direct correlation between teams performing well in the Europa League will lead to certain nations being granted places in the UEFA Champions League. That’s the case now, but adding extra emphasis to the Europa League should be a big part of the next cycle.

The biggest situation the ECA seem to want to sort out here is how some of Europe’s biggest teams did not qualify for the UCL. The overriding notion seems to be that the ECA wants them to qualify each year. Even though the likes of past UCL winners Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund weren’t involved in Europe’s elite competition this season, did the tournament really suffer because of it? In terms of gate revenue, perhaps, but it seems that the ECA is conflicted about the best way to get as many of its member teams involved in the elite competition as possible.

Another idea I’m just throwing out there could be to hand teams a spot in the UCL based on their current coefficient which takes into account their previous performances in UEFA Club Competitions. Perhaps four spots per season could be reserved for teams who don’t qualify for the UCL domestically, but have the highest coefficient of the non qualifiers. Just a thought.

There’s clearly plenty to sort out but it seems like — for now, at least — we haven’t seen the end of the UEFA Champions League. But tweaks will need to be made to stop it regressing.

VIDEO: Will Ferrell is feeling guilty – “I got Jose Mourinho fired”

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Sometimes there’s just something you have to admit.

[ MORE: Mourinho to United “done deal”

It sounds better if you say it out loud and get it off your chest. This is one of those moments for comedian, actor and now part-owner of a Major League Soccer franchise, Los Angeles FC, Will Ferrell.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Joining the Men In Blazers this week the self-proclaimed soccer nut joked that he was the one who actually got Jose Mourinho fired by Chelsea.

For real. Watch the video above to see Ferrell’s admission as he explains exactly what happened.

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Just seven months after leading Chelsea to the Premier League title, Mourinho was dismissed by the west London club in December.

NOTE: Severe tongue-in-cheek mode activated.

WATCH: NBC to stream USWNT, every CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying game

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The CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championships kick off on Wednesday and NBC Sports will be streaming all 15 games of the tournament over the next 11 days.

Every single game will be streamed live online or on the app via NBC Sports Live Extra, in addition to up to four matches airing on NBCSN with the U.S women’s national team — aiming for a fourth-straight Olympic gold — featuring heavily in live broadcasts.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The eight-team tournament takes place from Feb. 10-21 in Houston and Frisco, Texas, with the top two teams advancing to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Below is a full schedule of the games.

2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship Schedule

Frisco, Texas – Toyota Stadium
Houston, Texas – BBVA Compass Stadium
Times U.S. Central (U.S. Eastern in parentheses)

FIRST ROUND
Group A: USA, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica
Group B: Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana

Wednesday, Feb. 10 (Frisco)
Puerto Rico vs. Mexico                                   5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Costa Rica                                    7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Thursday, Feb. 11 (Houston)
Guatemala vs. Trinidad & Tobago                  5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guyana                                           7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Saturday, Feb. 13 (Frisco)
Costa Rica vs. Puerto Rico                              12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
USA vs. Mexico                                                 3 p.m. (4 p.m.) NBCSN at 9:30 p.m. ET

Sunday, Feb. 14 (Houston)
Guyana vs. Guatemala                                     12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
Trinidad vs. Canada                                          3 p.m. (4 p.m.)

Monday, Feb. 15 (Frisco)
Mexico vs. Costa Rica                                       5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Puerto Rico                                          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) LIVE on NBCSN

Tuesday, Feb. 16 (Houston)
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guyana                         5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guatemala                                      7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

SEMIFINALS

Friday, Feb. 19 (Houston)
Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up          4:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m.) ***
Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) ***

FINAL

Sunday, Feb. 21 (Houston)
Semifinal winners                                            4 p.m. (5 p.m.) NBCSN at 11 p.m.

***USA’s semifinal, should the USA advance, will air LIVE on NBCSN