BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: (L-R) Crystal Palace manager Tony Pulis and Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert talk before the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Crystal Palace at Villa Park on December 26, 2013 in Birmingham, England.

Paul Lambert: There’s no magic formula

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Before Aston Villa hosted Crystal Palace, Paul Lambert made it clear that his side needed to step up and stop their run of three straight defeats. The Villa manager said, “We have to win – it will be a cracking crowd there, Boxing Day and we have to go and win.”

But the hosts were beaten by a stoppage time goal by Dwight Gayle, a goal that lifted Palace up out of the relegation zone. A goal that also put Villa within three points of the drop, after four consecutive losses. It was a classic counter attack that brought down the hosts — one that Villa themselves had put on display to beat Manchester City earlier this season.

In this match, however, it was all about possession, and that tactic didn’t pay off. The Villa were unable to do much with the ball, often resorting to hoofed balls, with shots going high or wide more often than not. It was not enough, and the home side was booed off the pitch at the final whistle.More distressing, for fans of the club at least, is the fact that Lambert’s side seem totally out of ideas.

Christian Benteke, after going ten games without a goal, is now out with injury. Andi Weimann is showing barely a spark of the form that allowed him to light up the pitch last season. And the forwards Lambert brought in  as cover — Libor Kozák, Aleksandar Tonev and Jordan Bowery — aren’t cutting it. More strangely, Lambert is keeping bright youngster Nicklas Helenius on the bench.

But, when speaking after the loss, Lambert couldn’t pin down an exact reason for his side’s failure to win. When asked about their dismal home record, with just two wins in nine matches, the Villa manager simply said,”It isn’t good enough. The lack of goals is contributing to the not winning games. You have to turn it around. There’s no magic formula.”

Yet his opponent today seemed to have found such a formula. When asked about his side’s victory, Tony Pulis said “We’ve worked very, very hard on the shape of the team, on making sure that people are in certain positions at certain times and that everybody knows what they’re supposed to do.”

It seems simple enough. And that’s just how Palace looked: compact, organized, disciplined – and willing to punish if they found an opportunity to exploit a weakness. Crystal Palace have won four of their six matches since Pulis was appointed. The formula may not be magic, but it’s certainly effective.

When wrapping up his time with the press, Lambert said, “I have looked at the table. It’s as tight as anything for midway through to right down.” Perhaps, then, what his side needs most is the same sort of approach that Pulis has taken with Palace to lift them out of the drop zone. Because Villa are, in fact, fighting a relegation battle.

NWSL Playoffs set: Portland, Washington, Chicago, Western New York

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The National Women’s Soccer League will crown its fourth champion in mid-October, and for the first time in three years the winner will not be FC Kansas City.

FCKC finished sixth after the 20-game regular season concluded this weekend, six points out of the final slot occupied by the Western New York Flash.

[ MORE: Allardyce on England hot seat? ]

The Flash join Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit in attempting to topple NWSL Shield winners Portland, a Thorns side which won the title in 2013 and has only missed the playoffs once.

Washington hosts Chicago on Friday in the first semifinal, while the Flash travel to Oregon for an Oct. 2 semi.

Portland Thorns (1) vs. Western New York Flash (4)

The two best goal differentials in the league meet at Providence Park, where Mark Parsons’ Thorns and their league-best defense will be tasked with stopping the highest-scoring offense in the NWSL. That means stopping Golden Boot winner Lynn Williams and runner-up Jessica McDonald, who’ve accounted for 21 of WNY’s 40 goals.

The Thorns are loaded. Women’s soccer legend Christine Sinclair, who once lifted a trophy for the Flash, is there with a quintet of USWNT mainstays. French star Amandine Henry, too, as well as leading goal scorer and Danish star Nadia Nadim.

USWNT regulars on each side
Portland: Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg, Allie Long, Emily Sonnet, Lindsey Horan

WNY: Samantha Mewis

Washington Spirit (2) vs. Chicago Red Stars (3)

The two sides split the season series, with Chicago hosting a 3-1 victory on Saturday. Sofia Huerta had a goal and an assist, as she and Christen Press combined for nine shots. They’ve combined for 15 goals on the season, though the Red Stars have only found nine goals elsewhere.

No Washington player has scored more than five goals this year, and the Spirit haven’t had a multi-goal game in September, but Argentina national teamer Estefanía Banini’s five goals in 13 matches in an impressive haul.

USWNT regulars on each side
Washington: Ali Krieger, Crystal Dunn

Chicago: Alyssa Naeher, Julie Johnston, Christen Press

UEFA Champions League preview: Spurs, Foxes, and BVB hosts Real

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 02:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid takes on Sokratis Papastathopoulos of Borussia Dortmund during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final first leg match between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 2, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Leicester City gets a home Champions League match, Spurs head to Russia, and two of the world’s best attacks meet in Germany; Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League slate is pretty tasty.

[ MORE: Allardyce on England hot seat? ]

An out-of-form Cristiano Ronaldo has Real Madrid in a mini-slump, and a trip to Borussia Dortmund isn’t exactly the antidote now, is it? Normally we wouldn’t dial that up, but Ronaldo has a knack for shining brightly when folks question him. We’ve seen this one before. Expect a highlight-reel night from CR7, but perhaps the same from high-flying BVB.

Spurs are buoyed by the news that Harry Kane‘s injury may not be as serious as first thought, but could be sunk back into the depths with a loss at CSKA Moscow on Tuesday. Spurs fell to Monaco, while CSKA scooped up a solid draw at Bayer Leverkusen.

Leicester City is looking to stay perfect after an impressive UCL debut at Club Brugge, and faces a big test in Portugal. Porto does quite well in this tournament almost annually, and won’t be scared by a trip to King Power Stadium. El Tri trio Miguel Layun, Jesus Corona, and captain Hector Herrera join familiar names Iker Casillas, Yacine Brahimi, and Maxi Pereira on the Porto roster.

Tuesday’s UCL matches

all matches at 2:45 p.m. ET

Sporting Lisbon vs. Legia Warsaw
Sevilla vs. Lyon
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Juventus
CSKA Moscow vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid
Monaco vs. Bayer Leverkusen
Copenhagen vs. Club Brugge
Leicester City vs. Porto

Kei Kamara “shocked” at boos in return to Columbus

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 13:  Soccer player Kei Kamara attends the 2016 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
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Kei Kamara couldn’t gather his emotions after his return to Columbus as a member of the New England Revolution.

The star striker netted 27 times in 41 appearances for the Crew before a locker room falling-out found him traded to New England.

[ MORE: Harry Kane to return sooner? ]

The reigning MLS joint-top scorer and a member of the 2015 Best XI, Kamara was back at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday. The Revs fell 2-0, thanks to Columbus’  new Kamara, and Kei was booed.

There was bitter, smarmy Kei (from MLSSoccer.com):

“I was shocked,” he said after the match. “Come on. You make so many sacrifices for an organization to really boost it. But hey, if I can bring some life to the stadium for once in the season, why not?”

And there was also sad, pensive Kei:

“It wasn’t something I asked for, to move,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s been tough. It’s been really, really tough. But after today, I got the final answer to everything. It’s time to move on.”

“It’s time to move on. I’m happy where I am now and I wish [Columbus] the best of luck.”

I’ve rarely understood the booing of former players unless that player grievously harmed your club on the way out the door. Here in Buffalo, I’ve seen even the least-celebrated of ex-Sabres get the boo treatment, though, so it’s not uncommon.

Winter on Allardyce corruption allegations: “Touch and go whether he survives”

England international soccer team manager Sam Allardyce, centre, his assistant Sammy Lee, left, and FA chief executive Martin Glenn, right, applaud during the launch event of UEFA Euro 2020 and the unveiling of the tournament brand and the London host city logo at City Hall, in London, Wednesday Sept. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
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As details continue to unfold from the Telegraph’s sting operation that may’ve caught England manager Sam Allardyce in its grasp, the question of whether the ex-Sunderland man could be fired after just months on the job is moving to the forefront.

Allardyce, 61, is on tape talking about third party ownership of players — a big no-no for FIFA — and the words have some alleging that he is giving advice on how to buck the system.

[ MORE: Watford’s Deeney rages after loss]

Given that the manager has only overseen one match for the Three Lions and had been accused, but never charged, with accepting bribes from agents in 2006, some think he may not survive the issue.

Well-connected The Times of London writer Henry Winter says it’s possible.