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.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.