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Aston Villa supporters finally have hope again – Part I

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BIRMINGHAM, England — If you’re new to English soccer, you might not be aware of the fact that Aston Villa are one of the biggest clubs in the country. After all, they’re currently sitting 12th in the table, and are having difficulty stringing together a series of decent results. The last few seasons brought relegation battles, not pushes for Champions League football. But Villa were one of the founding members of the Football League in 1888 and have since spent 107 seasons in the top flight — that’s more than any club save Everton. They’ve won the title seven times, the FA Cup seven times, and captured the European Cup in 1981-1982, one of only five English clubs to have done so.

But it’s been a miserable few seasons for the Villa. After three straight seasons of finishing in sixth place in the Premier League — and even challenging for that elusive fourth Champions League position — manager Martin O’Neill abruptly left the club, resigning less than a week before the first match of 2010. Since August 2010, the club have had four different managers at the helm, with the squad’s style swinging abruptly from attempts at smooth continental possession-style to lock-em-down-and-hope-for-a-point. As a result, Villa’s fortunes took a nosedive, and the fans have had to deal with the hand-twisting, stomach-jangling fear of relegation in each of the past three seasons. But now, a few months in to Paul Lambert’s second season with Aston Villa, the supporters are finally able to starting to think optimistically.

In general, Villa fans aren’t known for being all that hopeful. They’ll complain about the team’s style of play, about the manager’s squad selection, about a lack of money — things supporters of almost every club do on a weekly basis. But in recent years, many Villa fans have sounded even more pessimistic, asserting that their once-proud history is being eclipsed by a dismal future. When I last paid a visit, just as the 2011-2012 season was about to kick off, talk was about how to prepare for a spell in the Championship. This time around, fans remained realistic about the club’s chances, and its dismal away record, but spoke warmly about the current leadership and were happy to demonstrate the quality of the traveling support.

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Aston Villa’s iconic club crest has been synonymous with underachievement for quite a few years now. But the massive club is ready to get back amongst the trophies.

Of course, this may have had to do with the fact that I paid a visit prior to the away game against West Bromwich Albion. The ties against West Brom are Villa’s biggest derbies this season. And, with just a few miles between the two grounds, an away day at The Hawthorns is no real hardship for most Villa fans. Thus, by Monday lunchtime, much of Birmingham had a festive air about it, with supporters booking off work to be sure to get a few pints in before kickoff. Supporters groups like the Kiddminster Lions and the Bromsgrove Villa Lions were in town early, making pubs like the Briar Rose in the city center rather crowded before 5 p.m. even rolled around. The bars were bustling and, every so often, an Aston Villa chant would ring through the throng. While police “spotters” were on hand to ensure no trouble broke out between rival fan bases, the ones I spoke with were quick to reassure me they had’t spotted any troublemakers, nor were they expecting any.

Part of the reason for the party-like feel hanging over much of Birmingham prior to the match against Albion is that the Villa now have a greater rival to focus their attentions upon. Despite West Brom and Villa having been the bigger clash for the majority of the clubs’ history, for most supporters, hatred of Birmingham City now eclipses that rivalry. In fact, many stated that, should the two sides play in the same division in the near future, they would not attend the match — that’s how noxious the atmosphere has become between the two sets of supporters.

But that’s not how it is for Villa against West Brom. Sure, you don’t speak to your Albion mates for a week before the match, and most likely for the week after. And those Albion supporters do their best to wind up the Villa fans, mocking their accents with a high pitched chant and flashing “We know who we are,” on the Jumbotron before kickoff. For Villa supporters, however, Albion fans trying to stir the pot are viewed as rather silly. It doesn’t matter that WBA have finished higher than Villa over the past few seasons, or that they’re currently higher in the table. Villa are a big club, Albion are not. Simple as that.

(READ MORE: And why should I become a Villa supporter? – Part II)

Of course, that feeling of superiority almost ended in disaster for the Villa support on Monday night. Before fifteen minutes were out, Shane Long had put the hosts up 2-0. The visiting fans were silent while the rest of the stadium rang out with chants of “Who are ya? Who are ya?” Did Villa supporters really have a reason to keep boasting? Or did Baggies fans have a point, that maybe a new era was shaping up in the Midlands?

But by the end of the match, Aston Villa had turned it around, with two second half goals by Karim El Ahmadi and Ashley Westwood. And that, in a nutshell, is why Villa fans are finally finding themselves able to hope once more. Their club isn’t perfect. It’s still in a rebuilding process. But going down 2-0 doesn’t necessarily mean defeat (remember Manchester City?). And there’s no longer reason to get bogged down in the mud of despair.

Why the change? Most of it stems from the appointment of Paul Lambert as manager at the start of the 2012-2013 season. Lambert took over from Alex McLeish, a managerial appointment that most supporters failed to understand and never gave full backing. Why owner Randy Lerner ever chose the man who’d just been at the helm for Birmingham City’s relegation — and led the Blues past Villa in a humiliating League Cup semi-final — will likely never be understood. A fairly young supporter named Jonathan asserted that the McLeish season was Villa’s lowest point. While older fans might argue with that point, the fact remains that almost everyone I spoke to had a sneer on their face at the mention of the man who Lambert replaced. Perhaps McLeish’s history could’ve been overcome had he produced results, or even decent football. But under McLeish, Villa were dreadful. Boring. Painful to watch. They won just 7 times, drawing 17 times, and scoring just 37 goals. They recorded 7 goalless draws, including two in derbies. At the least, to say 2011-2012 was Villa’s worst season in the past two decades would certainly be correct.source: Getty Images

So Paul Lambert already had one important distinguishing characteristic: He was not Alex McLeish. For this reason, Villa supporters were willing to give him a chance (although bringing newly promoted Norwich to a 12th place finish couldn’t have hurt). And they still are. While there was a bit of grumbling from certain sectors a few weeks ago, fretting over whether Lambert’s time was up, most seem willing to keep giving the manager the benefit of the doubt — although they’d sure like him to start winning at home.

Most Villa fans remain realistic. After O’Neill left, Lerner and CEO Paul Faulkner made it clear that cost cutting measures would go into effect: there would be no more pricey players; wages would no longer account for 85% of annual turnover. This is not a club that is owned by a multi-billionaire and as such, it is not a club that can afford marquee signings, pointed out Gary, a supporter old enough to remember the days when Lerner’s millions would have been enough. But Paul Lambert and his team have done well to scout out affordable players from England’s lower leagues, and have snapped up under-the-radar signings from throughout Europe. Out of necessity, Lambert’s Lions are a young squad, and that’s one of the reasons fans are willing to be patient.

When speaking about the manager, more than one fan mentioned that the club, and the supporters, need to give the gaffer more time, that making Villa great again would take a manager more than just a few months. “This season is massive to determine where we are,” stated Andrew, who was having a pint with Gary, Jonathan and his girlfriend, Yasmin, a Villa fan since birth. Andrew is one that believes the club has improved since Lerner took over at the helm, and that Lambert is a fine man for to manage the Villa. 

More than that, though, Paul Lambert has passion. Paul Lambert loves the Villa. This is what a pair of supporters, James and Phil, were quick to point out. James and Phil are of different generations, but that’s of little import when discussing matters connected to the club. Both agree that those connected with Villa should love the club, particularly because the clubs’ fans are themselves so passionate. Perhaps that’s why fans never really connected to Gerard Houllier, who rarely betrayed emotion. Or to McLeish, because how could a man who’d coached the Bluenoses truly want the best for Villa? But Lambert, jumping on the sidelines, defending his squad, hugging his players on the touchline…Villa fans see themselves in their manager, and that creates a connection.

A manager they can identify with. A club that, for the most part, fans believe is being run correctly. And a squad of exciting young players often playing in a fun and attacking style. When you realize Villa are 12th place in the table, and there remains a lingering uncertainty as to whether the squad can pull off results against lower-level sides, it seems strange that supporters are in boisterous spirits. But when you flash back to two seasons ago, as Villa supporters watched Emile Heskey desperately searching for a goal or viewed a 0-0 draw against newly promoted Swansea, it’s much easier to understand why optimism is prevailing amidst the claret-and-blue faithful.

Spain names final EURO roster: Lucas Vasquez in, Isco out

CLUJ-NAPOCA, ROMANIA - MARCH 27:  Isco of Spain looks on during the International Friendly match between Romania and Spain held at the Cluj Arena on March 27, 2016 in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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Spain has announced their final 23-man roster for EURO 2016, where Vicente del Bosque’s men will look to win an unprecedented third-straight European Championship.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO coverage ]

The most notable exclusions from the side are that of Real Madrid’s Isco and Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez. Isco had previously seen regular playing time in the side leading up to the tournament, and the uncapped Saul misses out after a great campaign for Atleti.

Barcelona has five players in the side along with six Premier Leaguers, highlighted by the Chelsea trio of Cesar Azpilicueta, Pedro, and Cesc Fabregas.

With an overflow of talent in the defense and midfield, the biggest question for this Spain side will come up top. There are quality strikers in this team, but the inexperienced group has combined for just 19 caps and four goals at the senior level.

Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Porto), David De Gea (Manchester United), Sergio Rico (Sevilla)

Defenders: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Marc Bartra (Barcelona), Mikel San Jose (Athletic Bilbao), Juanfran (Atletico Madrid), Hector Bellerin (Arsenal), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)

Midfielders: Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Bruno (Villarreal), Pedro (Chelsea), Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), David Silva (Manchester City)

Forwards: Nolito (Celta Vigo), Lucas Vasquez (Real Madrid), Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao), Alvaro Morata (Juventus)

PSG defender Serge Aurier to stand trial in September

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 25:  Serge Aurier #19 of Paris Saint-Germain beats Diego Costa #19 of Chelsea to a loose ball during their Internationl Champions Cup match at Bank of America Stadium on July 25, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) Paris Saint-Germain defender Serge Aurier will stand trial in September after being charged with assaulting a police officer.

Paris prosecutor’s office said on Tuesday that Aurier has been released from custody and will appear before a court on Sept. 26.

[ MORE: Klinsmann says USMNT to “go for it” vs. Colombia ]

Aurier was arrested in the early hours of Monday near the Champs-Elysees following an argument with police after a night out in Paris. Prosecutors said the police officer needed to take a day off work because of the incident.

Aurier was suspended for six weeks in February after a video emerged on social media showing him making derogatory comments about PSG coach Laurent Blanc, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and other players.

The Ivory Coast defender is widely regarded as one of the best right backs in Europe.

Payet, Milner in Top Five of UEFA’s “player barometer” for Euro 2016

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 27:  James Milner of England in action during the International Friendly match between England and Australia at Stadium of Light on May 27, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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It’s called the “ultimate form tracker” for players heading into Euro 2016, it’s hardly boring, and you’ll likely be surprised at the Top Ten.

UEFA has a sophisticated “player barometer” that tracks statistics for all players’ form before June’s tournament in France.

It’s no surprise that Cristiano Ronaldo is first and Zlatan Ibrahimovic second, unless you had them flip-flopped. And Antoine Griezmann as third, Dimitri Payet fourth? Sure.

[ EURO 2016: England squad releasedGermany, too ]

But fifth is James Milner of Liverpool and England, one of only three players in the Top Ten who aren’t from UEFA Champions League finalists Atletico and Real Madrid (Ibrahimovic and Payet are the others).

How does the weight work?

As the Barometer acts as a form tracker, the more recent the match, the higher the weighting assigned to the data from it i.e. player stats from yesterday are given more significance than those from last week. If a player is not active (e.g. due to injury or non-selection), his ranking will decrease over that period of inactivity.

Additional weighting is attributed for quality of opposition using UEFA coefficients as the foundation of the values.

Once UEFA EURO 2016 starts, statistical events (e.g. goals, assists, tackles, saves) for the 552 players will be given a significantly higher weighting to maintain an accurate ranking of those performing well in France.

Better chance to advance: Mexico or USMNT at Copa America Centenario?

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 10: Alejandro Bedoya #11 of the United States Men's National Team in action against Mexico at Columbus Crew Stadium on September 10, 2013 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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We placed Mexico fifth and the USMNT seventh in our rankings of contenders for the Copa America Centenario, which begins Friday in California.

But how wide is the distance between the two sides, and is any gap in talent mitigated by bigger challenges in schedule?

That’s what we’ll try to suss out here.

Mexico embarrassed the United States in the CONCACAF Cup playoff match this Fall, and both sides have since seen more good results than bad.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

The Yanks, of course, suffered the ignominy of a 2-0 defeat in Guatemala in World Cup qualifying, but are 7-1-1 in their last nine matches. Jurgen Klinsmann’s men have looked especially strong in the past match-and-a-half, dominating both Ecuador and Bolivia.

PASADENA, CA - OCTOBER 10: Hector Herrera #16 of Mexico protects the ball against Michael Bradley #4 of the United States during the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup Qualifier at Rose Bowl on October 10, 2015 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

El Tri hasn’t lost since the 2015 Copa America, and that was not a full-strength squad. Following the tournament, Mexico began a 12W-6D run which includes a Gold Cup win — suspect as the run was —  and a draw against Argentina. No, El Tri hasn’t beaten many opponents of power during the run, but the record is far from shaky.

Honestly, Mexico should expect to make a run at history. While they stumbled in qualification for the 2014 World Cup, their U-23s won gold at the 2012 Olympics. This generation of El Tri has been building upward, more or less, since that tournament.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Mexico has rarely had trouble with group mates Jamaica or Mexico, and Uruguay will be without Luis Suarez. It would be shocking if El Tri failed to advance from the group, and Mexico should have a chance to win the group. Argentina or Chile likely await in the quarters, so the semifinals are neither a given nor particularly likely.

The U.S. is in a different spot altogether. Yes, they should be able to advance from Group A, but their host status is the only thing that will make them heavy favorites in any match. Costa Rica went further than the Yanks at World Cup, and Paraguay has drawn Argentina twice, Brazil twice (once losing in penalties) and Uruguay once in the past calendar year.

Britain Soccer USA Colombia
(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The Yanks should be favored to finish above both those teams, but could be in a hole if they don’t start fast against Colombia on Friday in California. Colombia won its only warm-up match, a 3-1 decision over Haiti in Florida last week, but did not have star man James Rodriguez yet.

Winning the group is key for Klinsmann’s knockout round hopes, as Brazil should easily win Group B and face Group A’s runner-up. There’s a world of difference between facing Ecuador, Peru or Haiti, or tangling with Brazil.

[ EURO 2016: England squad released |Germany, too ]

So you could honestly make the case that while Mexico is far more dangerous side in this tournament, especially given their proximity to home, the United States edging Colombia for Group B gives them a far better chances of making the semis. The best team doesn’t always win. However, if the U.S. finishes second in Group A, it’s very difficult to imagine them taking down Brazil given September’s 4-1 thrashing at Foxborough.

The question is, would you fancy Mexico to have a better chance of upending Chile or Argentina? Most would say, “Yes.”