Aston Villa v Arsenal - Premier League

Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal: Gunners leapfrog back to the top (video)

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Jack Wilshere’s latest highly skilled goal and an equally proficient assist before the break Monday propelled Arsenal, which leapfrogged back to the top of a tight Premier League table, overtaking Chelsea and Manchester City at the completion of Round 21.

Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa in the Midlands reversed the early, alarming result in North London, as Paul Lambert’s young club had prevailed over Gunners on opening day at the Emirates, 3-1.

But that seemed so, so long ago as Wilshere, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla helped the Premier League leaders stay comfortably in control through most of Monday’s match at Villa Park.

Monday’s match turned on three highly eventful minutes, just after the half-hour mark. First came a big choice from referee Neil Swarbrick; he could have potentially shown red to Gunners defender Ignacio Monreal in the 32nd minute after he got tangled up with Aston Villa striker Gabriel Agbonlahor, who was proving a nuisance here and there for the visitors’ back line.

Agbonlahor was some distance from goal and slightly out to the right, but still may have been in alone on goal but for Monreal’s late tackle, which was cynical or just clumsy, based surely on your point of view. Either way, Swarbrick produced the yellow, and that was only the beginning of the bad timings about to arrive in heavy doses around Villa Park.

Just two minutes later, there were Monreal and Ozil connecting efficiently along the left. Cazorla did his part by dragging defenders away with a well-timed, convincing dummy run into middle. Monreal’s ball then found an onrushing Wilshere, who needed two high-quality touches to push the ball past U.S. international Brad Guzan, just inside the far post.

Guzan was blameless once again two minutes past that as Wilshere reacted quickly on a poor moment in Villa’s midfield. After an unforced Villa turnover, Wilshere quickly found Olivier Giroud, the striker who keeps doing just enough to keep his place in Arsenal’s bigger plans. Giroud finished with pressure quickly approaching for a 2-0 lead.

Villa produced very little until Christian Benteke’s long-awaited breakthrough in the 76th minute. Villa had barely threatened Gunners’ keeper Wojciech Szczesny when a Carorla turnover in Arsenal’s end provided a needed boost around the ground. Benteke’s diving header at the far post cut the margin in half and ended the Aston Villa striker’s lengthy goalless spell, one that stretched nearly four months.

The game’s other turning point came in the 14th minute as Aston Villa defender Nathan Baker was felled when hit in the face by a hard shot. He was taken into the locker room – reports later said he was mildly concussed but otherwise OK – leaving the home team frightfully short of defenders. Baker was one of three center backs for Villa, as Lambert gambled with something different in an effort to slow first-place Arsenal, now with just one loss in its last nine Premier League matches.


Aston Villa: Guzan; Clark, Vlaar, Baker (Bacuna 21); Lowton, El Ahmadi (Weimann 73), Westwood, Delph, Luna; Benteke, Agbonlahor.

Goal: Benteke 76

Arsenal: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal (Gibbs 66); Flamini, Wilshere; Gnabry (Rosicky 69; Oxlade-Chamberlain 86), Ozil, Cazorla; Giroud.

Goals: Wilshere (34), Giroud (35)

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.

Phil Neville praises Juan Mata’s play to Manchester United

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Juan Mata has appeared in 116 matches for Manchester United since moving to Old Trafford in 2014. In that time, Mata has scored 29 goals and recorded 18 assists.

Despite his performance for the team, some thought Mata would be moved when Jose Mourinho came to town, including former United player and assistant coach Phil Neville.

Neville told Sky Sports, “I actually thought he would be the first out of the door when Jose came, but he’s actually becoming one of the most important players.”

Neville praised Mata’s contributions and versatility for United. “He is never injured, he provides a lot of assists, he plays in two or three different positions, and he scores important goals.”

Manchester United has lacked an identity under Mourinho and recently faltered in the Premier League as the team is winless in its last three matches.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Could Mata be the answer to some of United’s problems?

The Spaniard is a classic No. 10 with the ability to dictate his team’s attack and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Mata can also put the ball in the back of the net as evidenced by his winner against Manchester City in the EFL Cup.

Mourinho has options in the center midfield with the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in addition to Mata on the roster.

However, given the team’s Premier League struggles, it could be worth giving Mata a chance as the team’s No. 10.

David Moyes faces FA charges after being sent off during EFL Cup

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David Moyes and Sunderland have gotten off to one of the worst starts in Premier League history.

If they fail to earn a point against Arsenal this weekend, they will tie the 1995-96 Manchester City team for the worst start ever through 10 matches with two points.

It appears those frustrations carried over to the EFL Cup for Moyes. On Wednesday, the manager was forced to leave the dugout toward the end of Sunderland’s 1-0 loss to Southampton after he protested a no-call from referee Chris Kavanagh.

Moyes was charged by the FA for his protests, saying the manager “used abusive and/or insulting words towards a match official”.

It’s just another thing to add to Moyes’ plate as he looks to keep Sunderland’s hopes of safety alive in the Premier League.