Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa: Reds stage comeback, but Villa leave Anfield with a draw (video)

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Aston Villa grabbed two goals before 40 minutes had passed, but Liverpool came back to score on either side of the break. Paul Lambert has plenty to be pleased about regarding his side’s performance, while Brendan Rodgers will likely spend a few days pondering how best to keep his side in the race for the Champions League positions.

The first half was full of surprises, with Villa threatening a repeat of last season’s 3-1 victory at Anfield. It may have been because Liverpool were overconfident, perhaps it was due to a change in tactics, but Liverpool looked rather lackluster for the first thirty minutes. The Villa took advantage, first with Ashley Westwood placing his shot straight at Simon Mignolet after a fine counterattack, then with Ciaran Clark hitting the post.

Just a minute after the post denied the visitors, another great counter allowed Villa to take the lead. Gabby Agbonlahor shot up the left flank, easily outstripping the Reds with his pace. A little bit of fancy footwork got him past Kolo Toure, giving Agbonlahor the chance to slide the ball across the face of goal. Andi Weimann was waiting in the middle, and needed just a touch to put his side ahead.

Liverpool failed to learn from their mistakes, and ten minutes later, there was Agbonlahor again, this time tearing down the right. Both Mignolet and Glen Johnson did their best to stop the resulting cross, but wound up catching only air. Christian Benteke came flying in behind Johnson, sending his diving header into the back of the net.

The hosts did manage to cut the Villa lead in half before the whistle blew for halftime. This time it was the claret and blue defense that were caught napping, foolishly giving Luis Suárez way too much space. The Uruguayan passed off to Jordan Henderson, who impressed with a nifty little backheel into the run of Daniel Sturridge. The resulting shot hit the roof of the net before falling behind Brad Guzan.

Both managers made changes early in the second half. Brendan Rodgers brought on Lucas to replace Coutinho, adding some steel in the Liverpool midfield. Five minutes into the second half, Villa were forced into a change, with Agbonlahor coming off injured, replaced by new loan signing Grant Holt.

But it was Suárez, of course, that brought Liverpool up to level terms. He got on the end of a ball from Steven Gerrard, going one on one with Guzan. The Villa keeper came out to stop him, got a touch on his leg and Suárez went down. The referee barely hesitated before pointing to the spot. It was Gerrard who took it, but it was the intelligent play of Suárez that created the goal.

With fifteen minutes left to play, Suárez very nearly scored one of his own. Yacuba Sylla, on for Karim El Ahmadi, fouled the Uruguayan, giving Liverpool a free kick from about 25 yards out. He took it himself, sending the ball flying over the wall, but could only hit the side netting. Suárez tried again in injury time, but Guzan pushed away to ensure Villa stayed level.

LINEUPS

Liverpool: Mignolet, Johnson, Cissokho, Skrtel, Toure, Gerrard, Henderson, Sterling, Coutinho (Lucas 45, Allen 66), Sturridge, Suárez

Goals: Sturridge (45+2); Gerrard (53)

Aston Villa: Guzan, Bacuna, Vlaar, Clark, Bertrand (Luna 81), El Ahmadi (Sylla 62), Westwood, Delph, Agbonlahor (Holt 49), Weimann, Benteke

Goals: Weimann (25); Benteke (36)

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.