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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.

West Ham 0-3 Southampton: Austin, Tadic pile on West Ham woes

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Charlie Austin remained hot, scoring his fifth goal in his last four matches to open the scoring, and it only got worse for the home fans at the Olympic Stadium as West Ham slumped to yet another defeat, this time to surging Southampton 3-0 behind goals from Austin, Dusan Tadic, and James Ward-Prowse.

West Ham pressed forward in the early going, seeing a number of touches inside the Southampton box, but the Saints held strong. As the first half progressed, the teams dribbled back and forth through the midfield, with the occasional moment of excessive physicality, keeping referee Jon Moss busy.

Oriol Romeu was cautioned in the ninth minute for a very heavy challenge on Manuel Lanzini near the mid-line.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Southampton began to build themselves into possession past the half-hour mark, and with five minutes to go until the break, West Ham’s leaky defense opened the door again. Ryan Bertrand overlapping on the left cut back to Charlie Austin at the penalty spot and he scuffed a shot past Adrian to put Southampton in front.

Following halftime, the visitors pushed for a second, nearly grabbing it in the 52nd minute when Dusan Tadic’s effort from close range was stopped expertly by a wonderful Adrian save down to his left. That sprung West Ham to life, and the Olympic Stadium responded with a ringing endorsement from the home fans.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Simone Zaza was booked for diving on the hour mark after flopping over a nothing challenge in the box from Romeu. Down the other end, Southampton struck again. With the Hammers dispossessed in their own half, a brilliant flick from Austin sprung Tadic free on goal, and he rounded Adrian and tapped home Southampton’s second.

Down 2-0, Slaven Bilic threw on young Ashley Fletcher and Sofiane Feghouli, both of whom had an impact. The Hammers screamed for a penalty in the 70th minute as Feghouli looked to clean up bright play from Payet, but his shot hit the arm of Bertrand, although from close range it would have been hard for Bertrand to react properly to avoid the contact, and Jon Moss did not award a spot kick.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The home side continued to flood forward past the 75th minute, with Southampton content to sit deep and look to counter. Adrian was needed to keep things from getting worse, as he produced quality saves to keep out both James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojberg in the 86th minute. Ward-Prowse would tack on a third in added time, as a deflection off Angelo Ogbonna opened up the young Englishman to poke home easily.

The three points sent Southampton shooting up the Premier League table, into the top half with nine points after their second straight win. Meanwhile, West Ham remains winless, shut out for the first time this season and owners of the leakiest defense in the league with 16 goals conceded.

Report: Kevin de Bruyne sidelined a month with hamstring injury

SWANSEA, WALES - SEPTEMBER 24: The Manchester City team check that Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City is okay after being fouled during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Kevin De Bruyne had been in the form of his life under new manager Pep Guardiola, but that will temporarily come to a screeching halt.

The 25-year-old has suffered a hamstring injury that will keep him out around four weeks, according to a report by City Watch, meaning he will miss significant time. He was brought off in the 81st minute of the 3-1 win over Swansea City on Saturday.

That one month span includes an international break, leaving new Belgium manager Roberto Martinez without one of his most in-form attackers. Through six Premier League matches, De Bruyne has two goals and five assists, leading Manchester City to a perfect start to the year as they sit atop the table.

[MORE: Antonio Conte furious with Chelsea’s defensive woes ]

Should four weeks be his time off the pitch, he would miss not only Belgium’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Gibraltar, but he would also miss Premier League matchups against Tottenham and Southampton, plus vital Champions League trips to Celtic and Barcelona.

De Bruyne’s absence will be a huge loss to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. According to Squawka Statistics, the Belgian playmaker has created 20 chances through six Premier League matches and has completed eight of 10 attempted take-ons. Guardiola said a week ago that De Bruyne was in the class of player just below Lionel Messi. “Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there.”

One man central to City’s ability to keep pace without De Bruyne will be new purchase Ilkay Gundoguan. The former Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder has started the last two matches after returning from an injury of his own, but has yet to play a full 90 minutes.

UPDATE: Belgian reporter Kristof Terreur of HLN has confirmed the report.

Watch Live: West Ham vs. Southampton (Lineups & Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21:  Manager of West Ham United, Slaven Bilic look on during the  EFL Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Accrington Stanley at the London Stadium on September 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The Hammers are in a bad spot. Five matches into the season, they have just three points – one third their haul at this point last season. They host Southampton at the Olympic Stadium at 11am E.T. live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Southampton isn’t in much better shape. They own just five points thus far and sit in 14th, and manager Claude Puel has slotted  in-form striker Charlie Austin into the starting lineup looking to build on a pair of wins over the last week.

WATCH LIVE: West Ham vs. Southampton live online at NBCSports.com

Austin scored the only goal in Saints’ 1-0 win over Swansea last weekend, their first of the league season, and then scored again in the 2-0 win over Swansea in the EFL Cup midweek. That gives Austin four goals in his last three games following a Europa League brace two weeks ago.

For West Ham, Slaven Bilic has a problem at left-back yet again after Arthur Makuasu, Aaron Cresswell‘s replacement, went down with a knee injury. Newly-arrived Alvaro Arbeloa will move from his usual right side to deputize. Defensive issues have plagued the Hammers thus far, having conceded 11 goals in their last three league games.

LINEUPS

West Ham: Adrian; Nordtveit, Reid, Ogbonna, Arbeloa; Noble; Antonio, Kouyate, Lanzini, Payet; Zaza.
Subs: Randolph, Byram, Oxford, Obiang, Fernandes, Feghouli, Fletcher.

Southampton: Forster; Cedric, Fonte, Van Dijk, Bertrand; Romeu, Højbjerg; Davis, Tadić, Redmond; Austin.
Subs: McCarthy, Yoshida, Clasie, Long, Martina, Ward-Prowse, Hesketh.

Joe Hart, Torino down Roma 3-1 in early Serie A game

BERGAMO, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Goalkeeper of FC Torino Joe Hart gestures during the Serie a match between Atalanta BC and FC Torino at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on September 11, 2016 in Bergamo, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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In today’s early Serie A game, Joe Hart and Torino held down Roma to win 3-1 at Stadio Olimpico to move into the top half of the table.

Roma dominated the stat sheets, holding 69% possession and out-passing Torino 466-174, but were wasteful in front of net, only able to put just five of their 21 their shots on target.

Andrea Belotti scored just eight minutes in to put Torino ahead, and Iago Falque bagged a brace with goals 13 minutes apart in the second half to seal it. For all its possession and movement in the attacking half, Roma could only manage a goal on a penalty, scored by Francesco Totti, his 250th career goal, all coming for one club.

Manchester City loanee Joe Hart commanded a solid performance by Torino’s back line, with the home side managing a whopping 22 tackles and 33 clearances. Roma actually out-performed Torino on the expected goals front, proving Hart’s influence.

The win, the club’s first since late August, pushes Torino up to eight in the Serie A table on eight points. They have conceded just a single goal – the Totti penalty – in their last three matches. It’s a far cry from the 2-1 loss to Atalanta in Hart’s debut, in which a mistake by the England international allowed Atalanta to score the winning goal.

On the other side, Arsenal loanee Wojciech Szczesny made a mistake to gift Torino their early goal. The result for Roma is a big blow to their hopes at challenging for the title, dropping them five points back of leaders Juventus and four behind Napoli.