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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.

VIDEO: Jurgen Klopp calls Bournemouth’s comeback a “deserved win”

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Jurgen Klopp clearly struggled to come to terms immediately with their collapse against Bournemouth, as Liverpool fell 4-3 on an injury time winner after leading 3-1.

The Reds were incisive throughtout the opnening hour, but once Ryan Fraser came off the bench the game changed, and Nathan Ake finally scored the winner four minutes into extra time.

“I think I have to say an absolutely deserved win for Bournemouth. Congratulations for this performance and for this big fight, what they delivered today. I think for a long part of the game we were the better side and we would have deserved to win, but in the decisive moment we gave the game away to Bournemouth. We opened them the door and they ran through with all they had, so that’s absolutely deserved because they stayed in the game and scored some wonderful goals.”

[ RECAP: Bournemouth completes stunning 3-goal comeback vs Liverpool ]

Klopp appeared to be collecting his thoughts as he spoke, often trailing off sentences to formulate new thoughts. What could be taken away, however, was that he believes, coming off a down year, that a rebuilt Liverpool squad is still learning how to complete full matches in a winning manner.

“When you’re on the way from…I would say, last year number nine in the league, a kind of average team…to a team which really wants to achieve something…when you have a start like we had, sometimes life and the impressions you can collect leads you in this direction to think ‘oh we are really good’ and we are good, but at the end only when we are 100% [will we be good].”

The German’s body language appeared to show he wasn’t too concerned about the loss, but didn’t hold back about his assessment of the team’s performance.

“First half I said – even when we were in the lead – I said that how we tried to play football was not good, it was kind of static. Then we concede a goal, then we scored a goal, 3-1 now it’s decided if you want. Obviously we gave it again away because we didn’t play football anymore so…and that’s our fault, and credit is to Bournemouth.”

Klopp finished with a chuckle, saying “if we learn from it it’s ok, and we’ll learn from it, but we were really bad.”

Watch Live: Everton vs. Manchester United (Lineups & Live Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30:  Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Manchester United in action during the EFL Cup quarter final match between Manchester United and West Ham United at Old Trafford on November 30, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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For the last year, Wayne Rooney has had to earn his place week in and week out for Manchester United. Finally he has, and suddenly they’re forced to be without him.

The Manchester United captain is suspended for yellow card accumulation as the Red Devils go to visit Everton with a chance to move into sixth in the Premier League table, live on NBCSN at 11:00 a.m. ET or live online at NBCSports.com.

[ WATCH LIVE: Everton vs. Manchester United live on NBCSports.com ]

Despite the miss of Rooney, it’s Everton that comes up with the truly surprising teamsheet. In a poor run of form with just one win in their last eight, Everton manager Ronald Koeman has dropped both captain Phil Jagielka and midfield playmaker Ross Barkley. Ramiro Funes Mori comes in to replace the captain in defense, while Tom Cleverley comes back into the side after two straight on the bench to replace Barkley.

For Manchester United, Jose Mourinho has finally answered calls to start Henrikh Mkhitaryan, including him in the lineup in place of Juan Mata, who drops to the bench. Mkhitaryan has played well in his few opportunities as a substitute and in cup play. United also sees Paul Pogba back after suspension, as is Marouane Fellaini.

LINEUPS

Everton: Stekelenburg; Coleman, Williams, Funes Mori, Baines; Cleverley, Barry, Gueye; Bolasie, Lukaku, Mirallas.
Subs: Robles, Jagielka, Deulofeu, Barkley, McCarthy, Valencia, Holgate.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Marcos Rojo, Darmian; Carrick, Herrera; Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Martial; Ibrahimovic.
Subs: Romero, Bailly, Blind, Fellaini, Lingard, Rashford, Mata.

Bournemouth 4-3 Liverpool: Ryan Fraser sparks Cherries to stunning comeback

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It’s never easy for Premier League minnows Bournemouth, but somehow they always seem to show up in the biggest moments.

Substitute Ryan Fraser, on for an injured Junior Stanislas in the 55th minute, made all the difference. He assisted two and scored one as he sparked the Cherries to an exciting comeback, winning 4-3 on a late goal by Nathan Ake deep into stoppage time. While Bournemouth goalkeeper Artur Boruc made a pair of early mistakes that led to visiting goals, Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius spilled one that saw Ake snatch the winner.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Out of the gates, Liverpool maintained a firm control over the game through the opening 10 minutes. The spell of possession earned them the game’s first chance on 10 minutes as Origi missed a sitter, delivered by Nathaniel Clyne on the right edge of the penalty area low beating defender Steve Cook to Origi right in front of net, but sliding to meet the ball he bundled the chance and it trickled wide.

That would be rectified 10 minutes later as Liverpool would steal a pair of goals in the blink of an eye. In the 20th minute, a ball over the top from Emre Can met a streaking Mane who blistered past a hapless Nathan Ake and bagged the opener. It appeared that Ake expected goalkeeper Artur Boruc to come off his line and assist. That would be relevant as just three minutes later, a horrific mistake by Boruc saw Origi in as the goalkeeper came way off his line all the way to the right edge of the penalty area to challenge the Liverpool youngster, but Origi easily touched passed Boruc and finished from an incredibly tight angle to put Liverpool 2-0 up.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Bournemouth seemingly had a way back in when Roberto Firmino appeared to trip Ake at the top of the penalty area, but with referee Bobby Madley starting straight at it, he waved off the penalty shout. Following that moment, the hosts proved themselves in the flow of the game, holding a number of decent spells of possession up to halftime.

Out of the break, Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe brought on former Liverpool youngster Jordon Ibe, and the boss was forced into a change not 10 minutes later with Stanislas needing a replacement in Fraser. Not a minute on the pitch, Fraser made an impact as he was bumped to the ground by James Milner in the box, and Bournemouth had themselves a penalty, which Callum Wilson finished cooly to give the Cherries a lifeline.

The referee had to talk Jurgen Klopp off the ledge with the Liverpool manager losing his mind moments after the penalty, as Bobby Madley and fourth official Stuart Atwell told him no more antics or he’d be off. That spurned Liverpool to a response, and Mane produced a brilliant run on ball into the box, cutting towards the middle before feeding Emre Can for a one-timer that he buried into the top corner for a 3-1 lead just past the hour mark.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The Reds needed goalkeeper Lorius Karius to keep out Fraser in the 70th minute with a shot from straight on tipped over the bar. They came as close to a fourth as physically possible without scoring moments later as Milner nearly scored directly off a corner, but goal-line technology showed that Boruc caught the in-swinger with literally a hair of the ball still on the line.

Bournemouth again pulled within a goal with an incisive counter-attack with 14 minutes left, this time with Fraser on the end of a cutback from substitute Benik Afobe. The goal, the 22-year-old’s first in Premier League play, sent Bournemouth away bursting with confidence, and they came right back down to equalize. A cross by Fraser found Cook standing tall at the spot, where he collected, turned, and poked home for a 3-3 scoreline.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

With Liverpool on roller skates, Bournemouth pushed for a winner the whole way through five added minutes, and they’d get it a minute from the final whistle with a deep drive by Steve Cook spilled by Karius, and Ake was there to poke home, needing a pair of touches to get it over the line past a helpless Liverpool goalkeeper.

The win, Bournemouth’s first ever over Liverpool in league play, sees the Cherries jump into the top half of the table on 18 points, sliding past Watford into 10th. Meanwhile, a stunned Liverpool loses ground on the top, with both Arsenal and Chelsea winning on Saturday, leaving Liverpool four points off the top in third with 30 points.

AFC Wimbledon completes stunning 4-goal FA Cup comeback

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04:  Tom Elliott of AFC Wimbledon rises highest to score their fourth goal during the Emirates FA Cup second round match between Curzon Ashton and AFC Wimbledon at Tameside Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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League One side AFC Wimbledon found themselves down 3-0 with 10 minutes to play against sixth-tier side Curzon Ashton in the third round of the FA Cup. The game was over.

Except for the part where it wasn’t.

Wimbledon scored three in three minutes through Tom Elliott, Dominic Poleon, and Tyrone Barnett to get back level at 3-3, and then Elliott bagged his second header, this time off a free-kick, with the last touch of the game to avoid a replay and put them into the next round in dramatic fashion. Go crazy, folks, go crazy.

The comeback could have been even more stunning, as Wimbledon poured men forward after falling behind 3-0, and had a huge number of chances in the final 10 minutes to score over and over, but they left it to the very last.

The end of the game overshadows what was a fabulous performance both by Curzon Ashton as a whole and in particular Adam Morgan, who bagged himself a hat-trick and was set to become an FA Cup hero. The 22-year-old striker is a Liverpool academy product and had spent time on loan at Rotherham and Yeovil Town before he was released by the Reds in 2014.

Curzon plays in the National League North, which sits below the Football League and along with the National League South is the equivalent of the sixth tier of English play. They play at Tameside Stadium just outside Manchester, and would have owned a famous home victory had they been able to hold on at the end against a Football League opponent.