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.

Lineups

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)

Mascherano still believes Neymar is “the future” of Barcelona

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The Neymar-to-PSG saga has escalated quickly, and signs of the Brazilian’s move to Paris are growing, but one Barcelona player remains confident that his compatriot will stay in Spain ahead of the new La Liga season.

[ MORE: Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

PSG has shown a willingness over recent days to meet Barca’s worldly $260 million transfer fee for the 25-year-old, while Neymar has reportedly alerted his teammates that he will in fact be heading to the Parc des Princes next month.

Veteran Barcelona midfielder/defender Javier Mascherano is one of the Blaugrana players that hopes Neymar will stick around and help anchor the La Liga giants for years to come despite a possible massive payday in store.

“Obviously he is young and I hope he’s here with Barcelona for many more years,” the Argentina defender said to ESPN.

“He is a really important player for the club. Because of his age, he’s the future of the club and we hope we can keep on counting on him.

“He’s accustomed to the pressure and people talking. There’s always going to be rumours and news around him.

“It’s really difficult to give advice. Firstly, I’m not anyone to be giving advice and secondly, I see him really happy here, really happy. [Barca] are a club that have made it possible for him to perform at his best. But after that, each person has to make their own decisions.”

If Neymar does bolt for Paris the complexion of the MSN-Barca attack changes drastically despite still boasting elite talents Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

[ MORE: Man United drops Man City in Houston “Manchester Derby” ]

Barca has done little in the transfer market this summer, only adding Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu and Nelson Semedo of Benfica. The club continues to pursue Liverpool attacker Philippe Coutinho, however, the Reds recently rejected a bid of $93 million.

‘Nothing is impossible’: Bonucci brings hope to AC Milan

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MILAN (AP) Nothing is impossible. That’s AC Milan’s new unofficial slogan following Leonardo Bonucci’s surprise transfer from defending six-time Serie A champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Neymar reportedly tells Barca teammates he’s off to PSG ]

Presenting fans to Bonucci via Weibo on Friday, Milan CEO Marco Fassone recounted how Italy’s top defender moved to a rival club.

“It started by chance and it seemed impossible but Leo interrupted me right away and said, `Nothing is impossible. When there’s desire to do things you can get them done.”‘

Milan has been on a spending spree following the club’s sale to a Chinese-led consortium for $800 million in April, and Bonucci is the top acquisition, so far.

“Leo doesn’t require introductions,” Fassone said. “It’s an extraordinary reinforcement for us. … He completes a mosaic sought after by (Milan chief sport officer Massimiliano) Mirabelli – a mix of younger players and experienced leaders who will make the road ahead easier.”

Other recent signings by Milan included forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Bonucci thanked Kessie for letting him wear his preferred No. 19 shirt, and pointed to Milan’s seven European Cups and Champions League titles as a reference point for a club that did not even qualify for continental play the last three years and hasn’t won Serie A since 2011.

“Milan deserves to be among the elite again in Italy and Europe,” Bonucci said. “When you are united you win. The strength has to be that of the squad whereas singular players alone can do nothing. We can get back to the top and that’s what this club deserves.”

Bonucci’s transfer fee reportedly topped the 40 million euro ($45 million) mark, and the center back was signed to a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros ($11 million) per season, including bonuses – making him the highest-paid player in Italy.

Meanwhile, Juventus is reportedly near to signing prized winger Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a reported fee of 40 million euros ($45 million). The Gazzetta dello Sport reported Juventus will sign the 23-year-old Bernardeschi to five-year contract worth 4 million euros ($4.6 million) per season.

Vertonghen: “We need to level up” like rest of PL contenders

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Tottenham put up a heck of a title fight in 2016/17 as the club attempted to chase down Premier League champions Chelsea, but Spurs have been inactive this summer as Mauricio Pochettino‘s group gears up for next month.

[ MORE: Striker Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

The London side finished second in the PL a season ago — a record-high for the club during the modern Premier League Era.

[ VIDEO: History of the North London Derby ]

However, Pochettino and Co. have made no moves in the transfer market this summer, while its competitors — Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. — have all made significant roster additions to bolster their lineups.

Defender Jan Vertonghen says that Spurs must compete with the rest of the PL’s elite in the transfer market if the club is to finally realize its goal of finishing atop England’s top flight.

“The way our rivals are strengthening this season, we need to be aware of that and we need to level up as well,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC.

“I’m not saying with new players, but we need to take our levels up and I think we can. I’m the oldest outfield player in the team and I feel very fit. The younger guys can improve even more. It can definitely be our year and we want it to be our year.

“Luckily we almost kept everyone from this year. Obviously the window is not closed yet but if we can keep these guys, we can do the same thing again. It’ll be a bit harder because we play at Wembley! [The pitch] is a lot bigger but the training pitches have already been adapted.

While Spurs certainly benefit from having one of the strongest young groups of players in England, the club’s lack of spending is a bit concerning, especially after its recent loss of Kyle Walker — who joined Manchester City for a record fee.

Zouma signs new Chelsea contract, is immediately loaned to Stoke City

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Kurt Zouma‘s long-term future is secure at Chelsea, but his short-term future will be away from Stamford Bridge.

The France international centerback signed a new six-year contract with Chelsea and was promptly sent out on a season-long loan to Stoke City. Zouma made just three starts and nine total appearances last season as he came back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2016.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“It is fantastic Kurt has chosen to commit his future to Chelsea,” Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo said in a statement. “He has shown his talent since joining us three years ago, and has returned from a serious injury with a fantastic attitude.

“Now he has the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League and we will be monitoring his progress closely while he is at Stoke.”

The move to Stoke will give Zouma a new experience, playing for a mid-table side in the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in at centerback, battling with American Geoff Cameron and Englishman Ryan Shawcross.

Even with John Terry leaving the club, Zouma was likely to be second-choice in the back three for Chelsea and if he wants to make France’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, he’ll have to play regularly.