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.

LINEUPS:

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)

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET