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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.

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri admits tactical mistakes after another road defeat

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Ever-gracious Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri has taken full responsibility for the Foxes’ recent struggles, claiming his lineup tinkering has fallen flat.

The Italian said following the 3-0 defeat to Southampton that he has tried a few different formations to maximize his players’ abilities, but that it hasn’t worked out.

[ RECAP: Leicester falls on the road again at Southampton ]

“I think the last two matches I changed the shape to try and help my players to play better and find the right solution, but maybe I make mistakes. I am wrong against Chelsea when I play with three at the back, and also today when I wanted to play with a diamond. My players are used to playing with a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 and they recognize the position, the game, everything, the movement. I wanted to give something more, but I make a mistake, I was wrong.”

Honesty sure is Ranieri’s best policy, and deflecting criticism from his players is clearly the tactic here. Managers often like to play down the importance of tactical formations at times, but here it clearly has weighed on Ranieri’s mind, who may revert back to his tested formations.

[ MORE: Is Pep Guardiola unhappy in the Premier League? ]

“I think it’s much better to give to them what they know very well. I look and they had to push a lot with this system and this mentality, and keep going and improve of course.”

Whatever the case, something will have to change with Leicester City this season if they wish to continue in the English top-flight. The Foxes have gone all season without a single away win, and they’re 15th in the table with just 21 points, five above the relegation zone.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Everton rescue Ivanovic, Insigne to Arsenal

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea in action during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Burnley at Stamford Bridge on August 27, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)
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Just nine days remain until the transfer window closes, and teams are gearing up for the stretch run that always provides plenty of action despite what’s been an uncharacteristically quiet January so far.

Chelsea has already shed a bit of dead weight in sending Oscar to China, and they could find suitors for another cast-away in Branislav Ivanovic as well. According to the Liverpool Echo, Ronald Koeman is hoping to bring Ivanovic to Everton as the Toffees look to secure a top seven position in the table.

Ivanovic has been a staple at Chelsea for years, but since being dropped by Antonio Conte on October 1st, he’s managed just 43 Premier League minutes as the Blues exploded on their record-tying winning streak. The 33-year-old doesn’t exactly fit into Conte’s system, but he apparently intrigues the Everton front office.

That move, apparently, could be the trigger that forces a longtime Everton defender to see his way out. According to the Daily Mail, Toffees captain Phil Jagielka has spoken with with Koeman to discuss his future at the club. Jagielka, like Ivanovic, began the season as an obvious choice in the starting lineup, but was dropped in early December and has seen just two Premier League appearances since as Everton has lost just twice since then.

Over in Italy, Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne is having a fantastic season, and it’s alerting clubs domestically and abroad. His contract doesn’t expire in Naples until 2019, but there’s talk of a contract extension due to his stellar season which has seen him bag six Serie A goals and five assists in 20 appearances. According to reports in Italy, Insigne is now shelving contract talks with interest abound. AC Milan is also said to be desiring his services as they push to break into the top echelon of the table, but the Gunners could also swoop, especially if Napoli is unwilling to match his contract demands.

One player who is wanted across the Premier League is Atalanta midfielder Franck Kessie. With links to Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea as well as Paris Saint-Germain, it’s certain to gain steam as Deadline Day approaches, but according to reports in Europe, Atalanta is prepared to ward off all interest by turning down all bids for the player. Kessie, an Ivory Coast international, has helped Atalanta to the 7th spot in the Serie A table, but is currently on international duty in the African Cup of Nations. He has six goals this season from the defensive midfield spot, although four of those came in the first three league games of the season.

Watch Live: Arsenal vs. Burnley (Lineups & Live Stream)

SWANSEA, WALES - JANUARY 14:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Arsenal at Liberty Stadium on January 14, 2017 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
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Arsenal has the chance to go second in the table as the host Burnley at the Emirates live at 9:15 a.m ET on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Hector Bellerin, Francis Coquelin, and Kieran Gibbs have all returned from injury for the Gunners, and all feature on the bench as Arsene Wenger has the chance to leap both Liverpool and Tottenham with all three points. Theo Walcott, however, is still out with a calf injury, allowing Wenger to leave his side unchanged from the 4-0 win over Swansea City.

[ WATCH LIVE: Arsenal vs. Burnley live online at NBCSports.com ]

Olivier Giroud starts up front for the Gunners with a goal in each of his last four games, while Alexis Sanchez is also in fantastic form, with six goals in his last eight games. Sanchez starts again despite his ugly body language after being substituted in the Swansea game with the game well decided, as Wenger played down the issue after the match.

Burnley, meanwhile, could potentially jump into the top half of the table if they could pull off the upset, currently in 13th on 26 points. Dean Marney and Ashley Barnes both return to the lineup after being held out midweek in the FA Cup match against win over Sunderland, but Johann Berg Gudmundsson is still out with an injury, having made just three appearances since late November.

Arsenal has held three consecutive clean sheets against Burnley, with Sean Dyche looking to turn around his team’s away form. The Clarets have earned just a single point all season away from home, the worst away record in the Premier League.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Cech, Gabriel, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Iwobi, Ozil, Alexis, Giroud.
Subs: Ospina, Gibbs, Bellerin, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, Lucas.

Burnley: Heaton; Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Boyd, Marney, Hendrick, Defour; Barnes, Gray.
Subs: Robinson, Flanagan, Tarkowski, Barton, Kightly, Darikwa, Vokes.

Southampton 3-0 Leicester City: Saints swarm from start to finish

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Jay Rodriguez (R) of Southampton celebrates scoring his team's second goal wit his team mate Ryan Bertrand (L) during the Premier League match between Southampton and Leicester City at St Mary's Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Southampton dominated from beginning to end, putting a stop to their four-match losing streak thanks to a 3-0 win over Leicester City at St. Mary’s. James Ward-Prowse and Jay Rodriguez both hit first-half goals as the Foxes remain without an away win in Premier League play this season, while Dusan Tadic finished it off late from the spot.

The game’s first opportunity fell to Southampton, who had pushed forward more in the opening 10 minutes. A cross from the left by Nathan Redmond picked out Dusan Tadic in the area, and the Serbian rose high above Christian Fuchs, but his header from close range soared just above the bar.

The Saints flooded Leicester’s box as they pressed high early, and they worked a shot for Pierre-Emil Hojbjerg on nine minutes in that he blasted into the stands. Hojbjerg had a better chance as Tadic fizzed a low ball across the box on 19 minutes, and it deflected across to the far post where Redmond had a shot, but Kasper Schmeichel slid low to make the save.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It remained all Saints as the clock ticked past 25 minutes, and they eventually found the deserved goal. Cedric Soares burst down the right edge of the box, and he clipped the ball to Ward-Prowse who hammered the a curling ball past Schmeichel into the back of the net, a beautiful finish to put Southampton up 1-0 with England manager Gareth Southgate in attendance.

Leicester never truly built themselves into the game in the first half as they continue to search for their first away win of the season. Five minutes before halftime, Southampton pushed the game further out of reach with a second. A free-kick by Ward-Prowse came barreling in, and Maya Yoshida got a head to it, pushing the ball towards the post where Rodriguez was there to crash it into the net.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

There was a worry after the break for Southampton as Virgil van Djik went down injured and had to come off. With Jose Fonte already sold this window, it forced the club to bring on 22-year-old Jack Stephens. They had a chance to put the game away on the hour mark as Fuchs sent Hojbjerg clean through, but he put it wide with just Schmeichel to beat.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Foxes slowly began to work themselves into things with 20 minutes to go, but it was too little too late. Wes Morgan somehow missed for Leicester with a great chance on the half-volley. He was relieved down the other end as it appeared Morgan had put the ball in his own net for a third Southampton goal, but referee Michael Oliver disallowed it for offside after conferring with the assistant. Replays showed Maya Yoshida may have his arm in an offside position, but otherwise there was little to suggest the flag should have gone up.

The Saints did get one last goal as Morgan barreled over Shane Long in the penalty area, earning him a yellow card and forcing Michael Oliver to point to the spot. Tadic obliterated the ball, pummeling it into the top right corner from the spot for his second goal of the season and Southampton’s third of the day.

With the win, Southampton moved above both Bournemouth and Burnley into 11th, while Leicester City remains just five points above the relegation zone in 15th position. On the season, Leicester has garnered just three points on the road, with draws against Tottenham, Stoke City, and Middlesbrough, having lost all the rest.