Aston Villa supporters finally have hope again – Part I

1 Comment

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.

source:
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.

Stream Live: Arsenal host West Brom

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arsenal welcome West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Gunners aim to close the gap on the top four.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Wenger will be hoping his side can build on their good performance at Chelsea last time out as they drew 0-0 but had the better of the play, while Tony Pulis‘ men were also involved in a hard-fought goalless draw against West Ham in their last encounter.

In team news Arsenal bring Alexis Sanchez back into the starting lineup but Mesut Ozil is only on the bench, while West Brom start Gareth Barry, who is making his record-breaking 633rd Premier League appearance, and make the former Aston Villa, Man City and Everton midfielder captain.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Cech; Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Bellerin, Xhaka, Elneny, Kolasinac; Ramsey, Sanchez; Lacazette. Subs: Opsina, Mertesacker, Wilshere, Walcott, Matiland-Niles, Ozil, Giroud,

West Brom: Foster; Evans, Dawson, Hegazi; Nyom, Livermore, Barry, Krychowiak, Gibbs; Robson-Kanu, Rodriguez. Subs: Myhill, Yacob, Morrison, Rondon, Phillips, Brunt, McClean

PL Playback: Who is the most complete striker?

Leave a comment

STYLISH STRIKERS

Tall ones. Small ones. Fast ones. Strong ones. Everywhere you look in the Premier League there are different types of strikers ripping it up.

Romelu Lukaku has six goals in six games. So does Alvaro Morata for Chelsea and Sergio Aguero for Manchester City. Harry Kane has six goals in his last four games for Tottenham in all competitions.

The sheer variety of world-class strikers now on show week in, week out in the Premier League is sumptuous. It’s as diverse a finishing school as you’ll ever see.

Morata took most of the headlines in Week 6 and rightly so as he scored a hat trick at Stoke City in Chelsea’s 4-0 win. The Spaniard, 24, has taken a little while to adapt to life in England but he is showing that with elegance and quickness of thought he can be just as destructive as Diego Costa who finally departed for Atletico Madrid last week.

Yet it is Harry Kane who oozes class in everything he does.

In Tottenham’s derby win at West Ham on Saturday he scored twice in the first half, linked play up and hit both posts in the second half. That performance left Kane’s manager, Mauricio Pochettino, professing his love for Kane at the London Stadium.

“For me Harry Kane is one of the best strikers in the world. It is too hard to find the word to describe him. In the last three seasons I am telling you how he is. I am in love, like the fans are in love, like the teammates are in love, not only because he scores goals,” Pochettino explained. “He is professional, humble and he is a very good example in football today that is a big business. He keeps all the values that managers like me appreciate a lot. That is why I say to you I am in love with him for many different reasons.”

Yes, the “I’m in love” part of Poch’s response will get the biggest play but the second part, for me, is the most important. Kane does everything well. He holds the ball up, he battles for every ball, he finds others with crisp passes and he leads from the front with his incessant work rate.

Morata is majestic, a finely tuned ballerina who can turn and accelerate in the blink of an eye before dinking a whirling-dervish of a finish home just like he did for his second goal on Saturday. Lukaku can power past defenders and his persistence saw him grab the winner, at the second attempt, in a gritty United display at Southampton on Saturday. And Aguero is always on hand to snap up the final ball of a flowing City move with his darting, speedy runs.

But Kane, well, Kane has all of that and more. He is the most complete striker in a Premier League which has a vast array of world-class strikers who all score goals in different ways. We haven’t even mentioned Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez, Javier Hernandez or Sadio Mane in terms of their goal-getting ability.

Kane was announced as a nominee for the FIFPro World 11 (only Lukaku of the three aforementioned strikers joined him) last week and the Englishman once again proved why he is considered not only one of the best strikers in the Premier League, but also one of the best on the planet.


LIVERPOOL WILL NOT CHANGE UNDER KLOPP

Life is never dull under Jurgen Klopp. Ever.

Since he took charge of Liverpool in October 2015, no PL club has been involved in more games which have seen five or more goals scored. On 17 occasions Liverpool fans have seen five goals scored in games involving their team and, most worryingly, all too often they’ve been against them.

[ MORE: Joel Matip speaks to Pro Soccer Talk ]

Liverpool’s 3-2 win at Leicester City on Saturday summed up everything which should concern the Reds.

They led 2-0 early on and looked to be on their way to a routine win. Then, right on half time, came a mistake from goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to make it 2-1. At 3-2 he then gave away a penalty kick but saved it as the maddening world of watching Liverpool was encapsulated in a nutshell.

Last week I sat down with Liverpool’s center back Joel Matip who told me why he believes the Reds should not change the way they play.

“Both parts only work together. I cannot stand at the back and our attackers go forward and there is so much big space. We all have to fit together. It is not always easy but this is our way of play but I think that is a good way of playing,” Matip said. “Everything has its positive and negative sides but I have no doubt about our way of playing.”

Plenty of Liverpool’s fans, pundits and neutrals doubt their defensive solidity and even though it is fun to watch Liverpool rip open opposition defenses with Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, their inability to defend simple set pieces situations will cost them any chance of challenging for major trophies.

Klopp’s style of play is only one part of this. Simply put: he has to invest in better defenders and goalkeepers if his time at Liverpool is to be considered a success.

If he doesn’t do that the German coach will soon come under pressure from some fans even though his team entertains and delivers plenty of drama. Liverpool had enough drama under Brendan Rodgers. The majority of the fanbase want silverware and Klopp’s current defensive unit will cost them that.


RELEGATION DARK HORSES

Crystal Palace is in a dark, dark place heading into Week 7 with no points and no goals to their name so far this season. Roy Hodgson knows he has a big task to turn the Eagles around but perhaps he feels like it is doable as plenty of perennial midtable teams look like they will struggle this season.

Newly-promoted teams Newcastle United, Brighton and Huddersfield have had very good starts and all three have won at least twice in their opening six games but that bubble could burst soon and its very rare that the three new boys all survive or at least push away from the drop zone in their debut campaign in the PL.

Add to that the likes of Bournemouth, Stoke City, Swansea City and West Ham United all looking a bit of a mess right now and there are plenty of early-season contenders for those three relegation spots.

Bournemouth have lost five of their opening six games and the worrying thing for Eddie Howe‘s side is that they don’t seem to be learning from their mistakes. They led against Manchester City but lost 2-1. They led against Everton but lost 2-1. With more experienced campaigners on board this season you’d expected less naivety from the Cherries. Their next four games are against Leicester City, Tottenham Stoke and Chelsea. All of a sudden the man with seemingly the safest job in the PL could be under serious pressure.

Stoke have been hit, very hard, by injuries, especially in defense as Geoff Cameron, Ryan Shawcross and Kevin Wimmer were all out for the 4-0 hammering to Chelsea at the weekend and then Bruno Martins Indi was injured late on. Mark Hughes‘ men have one win from their first six games and even though they are usually slow starters, recent displays have been worrying.

Swansea are struggling to put away chances as Paul Clement‘s men have lost all three games at home so far and Watford won late at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday after the Swans dragged themselves back into the game. Like Stoke it is perhaps a little too early to worry but Clement will be far from impressed with the start.

West Ham United are in a real mess and their creaky defense looks like shipping goals galore. Slaven Bilic‘s situation is unsettling the entire club with the Croatian only contracted until the end of the current season and his players appear to have plenty of fight and spirit to drag themselves back into games late on, yet whether or not they’re fighting for themselves or Bilic remains to be seen. With four points from their opening six games the Hammers are in trouble.

With the PL’s top six, plus Everton, spending big and seeming to be head and shoulders above the rest, the scramble to stay out of the bottom three may be the best (or most nerve-wracking, depending on who you support) in recent memory. If Crystal Palace can somehow recover from the worst start in league history they will drag a heck of a lot of teams into the relegation mire.


CHICHARITO MISUSED?

After West Ham’s spirited, yet deeply flawed, 3-2 defeat against Tottenham in a big London derby on Saturday, I asked Hammers boss Slaven Bilic if getting the best out of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez in the right areas was a big challenge.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from Spurs v West Ham ]

His answers was just as confusing as why Chicharito isn’t been played in his natural position.

“I spoke to him after West Brom game and today he started as a center forward and then he had to change the position because we wanted to stay in the same system as it was working well. Even then, he was in good areas so you can’t say he was out wide,” Bilic explained. “Against top teams everyone has to defend and he was in a position where he would have been if we were playing two strikers. When we were attacking he was not playing on the wing, he was a striker. It’s not very easy to play with him, Andy, Antonio and Arnautovic and play with three center backs.”

Hernandez headed home to make it 3-1 with 25 minutes to go and had another chance to make it 3-2 which was well saved by Hugo Lloris but he was unable to impact the game from wide positions as Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer cut a frustrated figure at the final whistle.

He was involved in a large scuffle near the end of the game and he carried on his spat with Fernando Llorente after the final whistle too. Bilic has to find a way of playing Chicharito in his best position, which is through the middle, because early on it was working very well for the Hammers.

It is easy to see why Hernandez is frustrated. After three goals in six games he is still being shunted out wide by Bilic and when Michail Antonio was injured early in the loss to Spurs, Andy Carroll came off the bench to take his central role and Hernandez was told to play out on the right.

With Andre Ayew on the bench, did it not make more sense to put him out wide and leave Hernandez up top to stick to the same game plan which had actually caused Spurs plenty of problems?

That’s what Hernandez will be asking himself and it would be legitimate for Hammers fans to ask themselves exactly why they signed the former Manchester United striker if he’s going to be played out wide.


USMNT UPDATE

DeAndre Yedlin was at the center of controversy in Newcastle United’s 1-0 defeat at Brighton on Sunday.

The right back was involved in a coming together with Tomer Hemed and the big Israeli striker, who scored the winner for Brighton, appeared to stamp on Yedlin’s calf as the former Seattle Sounders star led on the ground. The FA is said to be reviewing the images and could hand Hemed a ban for his stamp. It certainly looked deliberate as Yedlin had a tough afternoon trying to lock down Solly March on Brighton’s left flank.

In other USMNT news both Geoff Cameron and Danny Williams are out injured. Cameron remains missing with a hamstring injury he suffered against Manchester United two weeks ago, while Williams has suffered an injury to his foot.

Pro Soccer Talk understand Williams has not broken a small bone in his foot, as his manager David Wagner first feared, but he is still expected to be out for two to three weeks. That is incredibly frustrating as the German-American had just worked his way into the starting lineup and played well in the Terriers’ 1-1 draw against Leicester City and many were calling for him to be recalled for the USMNT for the key 2018 World Cup qualifiers next month.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

VIDEO: Borussia Dortmund condemn rise of AfD party

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Borussia Dortmund is not a club which “sticks to sports” and it has released a video urging people to fight together against racism.

[ MORE: Bundesliga schedule

During the German election on Sunday, which saw Angela Merkel elected for a four term as the chancellor, Germany’s far right nationalist AfD party won its first seats in parliament.

The AfD party took 13% of the vote in the German election and have vowed to fight the open border policy introduced in 2015 when Germany decided to help refugees and asylum seekers.

AfD have become the first hard-right German political party to sit in parliament for over 50 years.

In the powerful video below Dortmund have two key messages at the end of the footage: “Football and Nazis just do not fit together” and “Borussia connects. Together against racism.”

Napoli’s Milik out four months with another knee injury

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NAPLES, Italy (AP) Napoli forward Arkadiusz Milik will again be sidelined for about four months after another knee injury.

[ MORE: Serie A stats, schedule ]

Milik had an operation in Rome on Monday after injuring his right knee in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Spal.

The Poland international missed four months of last season after damaging ligaments in his left knee on World Cup duty.

Napoli says it is not “an isolated injury but a complex one,” adding “the surgery was perfectly successful.”

The club says Milik’s recovery time will be “similar to that of his previous injury.”

The 23-year-old Milik scored in Napoli’s opening match, a 3-1 victory at Hellas Verona, and also converted a penalty in its Champions League loss to Shakhtar Donetsk.

Before his injury last season, Milik scored seven goals for Napoli after joining from Ajax.