Liverpool's Aspas challenges Aston Villa's Delph during their English Premier League soccer match in Birmingham

Aston Villa 0-1 Liverpool: Reds see out an early lead at Villa Park (Video)

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Aston Villa seem to have a strategy this season: go down a goal early in the first half, then rally for the equalizer. But despite sticking with that method against Liverpool on Saturday, Villa never managed to find that equalizer. Daniel Sturridge gave the Reds the lead in the 21st minute, and despite a barrage of pressure by the Villa in the second half, held on to leave Birmingham with all three points.

Paul Lambert’s strategy didn’t go quite to plan this time around — perhaps because Liverpool took over twenty minutes to score their first goal? It was an absolutely lovely one, though. The Reds flew up the pitch, easily passing through the Villa midfield. Jose Enrique sent the ball in from the left, with Sturridge waiting in the center. The forward sidestepped through two claret and blue shirts, exposing the obvious flaws in the home side’s defense. Brad Guzan came out in an attempt to block the shot, but the goalkeeper slipped a little, making it easy for Sturridge to dance around him. With a Villa defender closing in, Sturridge took his shot from a tight angle, sending the ball into the roof of the net.

Just like in the midweek match against Chelsea, Villa came to life around the 40 minute mark. Unlike at Stamford Bridge, Christian Benteke was unable to find an equalizer before the halftime whistle blew. The Belgian had a terrific chance in the 42nd minute, holding off the Liverpool defense to get himself into a good shooting position. Benteke managed a sharp shot on target, but a diving Simon Mignolet managed to get his fingertips on the ball and push it out of danger.

The home side did much better in the second half, but they just couldn’t get by the Liverpool defense. Ashley Westwood made a couple of speculative attempts from distance, but they inevitably went high. Substitute Aleksander Tonev, making his Villa debut, quickly forced Mignolet into a save. Gabby Agbonlahor missed a golden opportunity when the ball fell to his feet, placing his shot just wide of the post.

Benteke sent in a wonderful volley in the 86th minute, but Mignolet pulled out a fantastic save, diving to his left to push the ball away. By the end of the match, Lambert had four forwards on the pitch and had shifted Leandro Bacuna to right back to help in the attack, but nothing seemed to work for the Villa manager.

Liverpool, for that part, felt content with the “bunker” part of “bunk and counter.” Their only shot of any note was one from Glen Johnson, and that attempt prompted angry yells from his teammates. There was plenty of space for Johnson to get into a good position, or to cross for one of his teammates, but instead the right back sent his shot very wide and very high. There was a shout for a penalty in the dying minutes of the match, when Guzan came out to keep Sturridge from scoring a second, but Mark Clattenburg felt there was no reason to point to the spot.

It may have been a loss for Aston Villa, but the young side will be relieved to walk away from this difficult stretch having picked up three points from their first three matches. Liverpool, meanwhile, will be thrilled with two wins in a row, and both of them clean sheets as well. However, next up for the Reds is hosting Manchester United at Anfield.


Aston Villa: Guzan, Lowton (El Ahmadi 65), Vlaar, Okore, Luna, Bacuna, Westwood (Helenius 83), Delph, Agbonlahor, Benteke, Weimann (Tonev 73)

Substitutes not used: Steer, Clark, Herd, Sylla

Liverpool: Mignolet, Johnson, Enrique, Toure, Agger, Gerrard, Aspas (Cissokho 68), Coutinho (Allen 83), Henderson, Lucas, Sturridge

Substitutes not used: Jones, Alberto, Borini, Sterling, Wisdom

Goals: Sturridge 21 (L)

Barcelona, Neymar make it formal: Signed into 2021

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 19: Neymar of Barcelona holds off pressure from Raheem Sterling of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League group C match between FC Barcelona and Manchester City FC at Camp Nou on October 19, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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T’s are crossed and i’s dotted on Neymar’s new contract, keeping him at the club through the 2020-21 season.

Neymar, 24, will make his 100th La Liga appearance with his next step onto the pitch.

Lionel Messi’s deal runs through 2017-18, and Luis Suarez’s goes through 2018-19.

[ MORE: Guardiola on Aguero omission ]

He’s scored 59 goals in league play, and has 91 total when you include all 150 of his matches in a Barca kit.

Neymar is on a similar scoring rate to last season, when he netted 31 times. The Brazilian also has 49 international goals in 73 caps.

Guardiola seethes at reports Aguero unwanted at Man City

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 14: Sergio Aguero of Manchester City is congratulated by Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League match between Manchester City FC and VfL Borussia Moenchengladbach at Etihad Stadium on September 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola is seething with reports that claim star striker Sergio Aguero is not in his plans for Manchester City’s future.

Aguero started on the bench for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League loss at Barcelona, inspiring talk that the Argentine star wasn’t long for the Emirates Stadium.

[ MORE: Conte on Mourinho, Pogba ]

Guardiola says that’s garbage, and that he simply needed more midfielders for his attack. Next time, just ask.

From the BBC:

“It was a tactical decision. I wanted one more midfielder, I tried to keep the ball in the Camp Nou and when you have the ball, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez don’t.

“I spoke with Sergio and he was understanding, I thought in the last 30 minutes, with the Barcelona centre-halves tiring, he could help a lot from the bench. When Sergio decides to leave it will be his decision. Next time before you (the media) decide he is not in my plans you can call me.”

Still, not using Aguero is risky business.

The striker believes, rightly, that he’s among the most dangerous players in the world. Guardiola has said as much, too.

While few would put him in the class of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s difficult to imagine either being sat for tactical reasons against one of the best teams in the world.

Chelsea: Conte expects warm reception for Mourinho; Terry is fit

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  A fan wears a Chelsea scarf with the image of the club's former manager, Jose Mourinho before the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Watford at Stamford Bridge on December 26, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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The managers are meeting the media ahead of this week’s Premier League matches, and many eyes are trained on one specific match-up.

Chelsea and Manchester United meet on Sunday, the first time Jose Mourinho will manage against his old side since his unceremonious exit last winger.

[ USWNT: Holiday has tumor removed ]

Mourinho, of course, led Chelsea to the 2014-15 title only to see a miserable start to the following campaign. He was hired at Manchester United this summer, but Conte thinks Mourinho’s Chelsea laurels have earned him some love from Stamford Bridge.

“I have great respect for Mourinho. He deserves a good reception. He was an important man for Chelsea and wrote part of the club’s story.”

Conte also touched on Paul Pogba‘s decision to head back to Old Trafford. Pogba is coming off a starring role in United’s 4-1 win over Fenerbahce, and Conte guided the French midfielder during their time at Juventus.

“It was Paul Pogba’s dream was to return to Manchester United. I wish him well, but only after this game.”

Conte said John Terry is available to return for Chelsea, and that could be invaluable against a big, strong forward like United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With the Red Devils having played Thursday, Conte will like his chances a bit more than usual.

Canada vs. U.S. among top-notch CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals

VANCOUVER, CANADA - JUNE 20:  Gershon Koffie #28 of the Vancouver Whitecaps brings the ball up field against Dax McCarty #11 of the New York Red Bulls at B.C. Place on June 20, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jessica Haydahl/Getty Images)
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The bracket is set for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and ensures that at least one MLS vs. Liga MX semifinal will happen next Spring.

No. 1 seed New York Red Bulls will cross the continent to meet No. 8 Vancouver Whitecaps, with the winner moving on to face the victor of Mexico’s Tigres UANL vs. Pumas UNAM.

[ VIDEO: Previewing all 10 PL matches ]

The possibility of an all-Liga MX or all-MLS final still exists, with Pachuca and FC Dallas on opposite sides of the bracket. Arabe Unido gives Panama hope for its first CCL semifinalist, while Saprissa can be Costa Rica’s first semifinalist since 2011.

Of the remaining teams, only Pachuca has won a title in the CCL era (2008-present). Tigres lost in the 2016 final, the only other team to make it that far.

Full schedule
New York Red Bulls (1) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (8)
Tigres UANL (4) vs. Pumas UNAM (5)
Arabe Unido (2) vs. FC Dallas (7)
Pachuca (3) vs. Saprissa (4)

The first legs will be played in late February, and the bright side to the intra-league quarters will be one MLS side waiting a round before facing a more in-form club playing a traditional season schedule (though that’s an overblown excuse at this point).

Some fans don’t care much for the tournament, while others — myself included — are extremely keen to see an MLS team win the CCL and represent North America in the Club World Cup, where it can get a high profile litmus test in a serious competition (Real Madrid beat Cruz Azul 4-0 in a 2014 semifinal).