Fulham 2-0 Aston Villa: Berbatov leads Whites to first win in eight (Video)

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Fulham picked up three enormous points, their first win under new first team coach Rene Meulensteen, as they dominate a well-traveled Aston Villa 2-0 from Craven Cottage.

Steve Sidwell and Dimitar Berbatov both grabbed first-half goals, with the latter having a hand in both scores and handing in an impressive performance on the heels of a few lazy showings.

The home side started on the front foot, and bashed both of Villa’s flanks in the first ten minutes, but they couldn’t find a good cross into the box.

Brad Guzan in that time was forced into a fantastic save when Dimitar Berbatov put his head to a corner, but the 29-year-old keeper athletically kept the Bulgarian out.

Villa had clearly decided to play on the counter, like they had so many times before successfully on the road.  Christian Benteke found himself a chance in the 13th minute but couldn’t put his header accurately onto a cross from Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Benteke then three minutes later again found space in the box but Maarten Stekelenburg saved well down low to his left.

Things started to get hectic for the Villa defense just before 20 minutes as Ashkan Dejagah received a long ball in the box and was free on net but Cieran Clark made a last-ditch tackle among penalty shouts for Fulham, and Kacaniklic’s follow-up was cleared off the line by Nathan Baker.

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Giorgis Karagounis partnered beautifully with Scott Parker and put in a fantastic midfield shift.

The disorganization of the visitors at the back finally hurt them in the 21st minute.  Giorgis Karagounis won the ball in Villa’s third, and a great touch by Berbatov found Dejagah then Steve Sidwell who cut home from a very tight angle.

It got better for the home side eight minutes later as a beautiful touch by Berbatov on the counter sprung Kacaniklic all alone.  Leandro Bacuna caught up as Kacaniklic settled and broke, but the Swede stuck his body between ball and defender, and Bacuna brought him down.  What looked to be a soft penalty was shown to be the correct decision on replay.

Berbatov then took the penalty and, in his usual cool self, calmly finished past Guzan for a 2-0 lead.

The second half was more of the same, with Guzan needing to sprawl to his left to save a Philippe Senderos header within the first five minutes after the break.

Fulham didn’t find as many chances as in the first half, but they controlled possession and midfield, and Aston Villa wasted chance after chance with poor set pieces and sloppy passing on the counter.

John Arne Riise on 65 minutes just missed wide with a header after Dejagah found him with a long cross, and the Iranian himself had a shot saved by Guzan minutes later with space and the goal gaping.

It was all Fulham from that point on, with Riise failing to get past Guzan on two other occasions, and chances also falling for Berbatov and Dejagah.

The only real chance for Aston Villa came as Abgonlahor was possibly fouled in the edge of the box by Aaron Hughes on 84 mintues.  There was slight contact on Agbonlahor’s foot, but the striker didn’t help himself by going down theatrically. Mike Dean waved it off.

The win for Fulham is massive, as they move above Crystal Palace into 17th and look bright for the second straight match. Villa also halts a streak, one of five straight unbeaten marked by just their second away loss of the season.

Christian Benteke remains goalless for nine straight matches now.

GOALS:

Fulham – Sidwell 21′, Berbatov (pen) 30′

LINEUPS:

Fulham – Stekelenburg; Riether, Hughes, Senderos, Riise; Parker, Karagounis (Kasami, 75′), Sidwell; Kacaniklic (Duff, 76′), Dejagah; Berbatov.

Aston Villa – Guzan; Bacuna, Clark, Baker, Herd (Lowton, 81′); El Ahmadi (Tonev, 45′), Westwood Delph; Agbonlahor, Benteke, Weimann (Albrighton, 81′).

Albanian federation denounces “extremist acts” of their fans in Italy

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania’s soccer federation has strongly denounced the incident that halted the World Cup Group G qualifier with Italy for nearly nine minutes on Friday.

During the match, which was won by Italy, 2-0, a group calling itself Illyrian Elite threw flares onto the pitch.

“Such totally extremist actions from the grouping Illyrian Elite have nothing to do with the excellent Albanian fans” who were distinguished in the EURO 2016 finals in France for their friendship and camaraderie in their festivities, the statement added.

The federation said an coach Gianni De Biasi also was “upset by the flares,” adding that during five years he has been in charge “I’ve seen something that’s never happened before.”

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.