Premier League 2014-15 preview: Aston Villa

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Aston Villa’s offseason has been engulfed by talk of a new owner taking over from American businessman Randy Lerner, however nobody has come in to buy the Midlands club. After another season of struggle last time out, a true sleeping giant of English soccer will hope to finally awake from their lengthy slumber this season. With Paul Lambert still in charge, despite growing criticism, his new assistant Roy Keane will be crucial in helping to turn things around. Experienced heads like Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson have joined Villa’s young core and will hope to help them creep into the top 10 this season. That must be the aim, but more likely is another season of battling the drop at Villa Park.

[RELATED: Full PL season preview]

Transfers In: Joe Cole (West Ham, Free), Philippe Senderos (Valencia, Free), Kieran Richardson (Fulham, Undisclosed)

Transfers Out: Marc Albrighton (Leicester City, Free), Nathan Delfouneso (Blackpool, Free), Jordan Bowery (Rotherham, $420,000)

| Full PL schedule |  Watch Villa live via Live Extra | BPL on NBC schedule |

Last season: Villa finished 15th last season and battled against the drop for most of the campaign. Despite some great wins over Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, they often came unstuck against lesser teams and Christian Benteke’s season-ending injury hit them hard. Fans were not happy with the lack of forward momentum their side showed but with young kids being thrown in at the deep end, it was never going to be a stellar season for the Villans. Here is a recap of their 2013-14 season.

source: Getty Images
Guzan will need to have another superb season to help Villa climb up the standings.

Star player: Brad Guzan

The American ‘keeper has has two wonderful years at Villa since Lambert took charge. The clubs reigning Player of the Year was initially released by the club in 2012, but then signed a new deal when Lambert arrived. Since then Guzan, 29, hasn’t looked back. He has become one of the best goalkeepers in the PL and let’s be honest, he’s been getting plenty of reps over the past 24 months. As an understudy to Tim Howard for the U.S. national team, Guzan has been on the cusp of taking over from his illustrious teammate. However now it seems like he may have to put in another season or two of splendid performances for Villa before he knocks Howard off his perch as the USA’s no 1. If Villa are going to survive, and thrive, this season, Guzan needs to have another great campaign. Ron Vlaar, if he sticks around, will also be key. As will the returning Benteke.

Coaches’ Corner: Paul Lambert

After two seasons  at Villa, Lambert has had it rough since switching Norwich for Villa Park in 2012. Sure, he hasn’t had much money to spend but with a club the size of Villa and the number of promising youngsters they have, you need to be doing better than just staying up. You really feel that if Villa are at the wrong end of the table by Christmas time, Lambert’s time in charge could be up. Having former Manchester United and Republic of Ireland legend Roy Keane by his side could be his only saving grace. Together they must turn things around.

PST predicts: This season could go either way for Villa, it really could. I like the additions of Cole, Richardson and Senderos. All three have played for huge clubs like Chelesea, Manchester United and Arsenal but have something to prove after their careers have stalled. If those three cheap additions can come in and have a positive impact on the dressing room, expect Villa to be fine in mid-table. They have a bunch of talented youngsters like Gary Gardner, Fabian Delph and Andreas Weimann who would all benefit from experienced players. If things go badly early in the season, expect Lambert to get fired and Roy Keane to replace him. Strap in, this will be a rollercoaster ride.

MLS Cup Playoffs: Seattle Sounders 1-0 Sporting KC (video)

Seattle Sounders defender Brad Evans celebrates after Sounders' Nelson Haedo Valdez scored a goal against Sporting Kansas City in the second half of an MLS soccer playoff match, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Seattle. The Sounders beat Sporting Kansas City 1-0. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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The game in 100 words (or less): There’s a ton to unpack here, so we’ll dive right in. The Seattle Sounders topped Sporting Kansas City in the final knockout-round game of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. Nelson Valdez scored the game’s only goal, an 88th-minute header, but not without supreme controversy. For starters, Valdez was offside as Joevin Jones played the ball into the box, just as Matt Besler was on a free kick for Sporting earlier in the second half. Besler’s goal was ruled out for offside, Valdez’s was allowed to stand. Benny Feilhaber, perhaps in his final game for Sporting, played like a man possessed and so nearly singlehandedly won the game for Sporting at multiple points on the night. Stefan Frei stood on his head and refused to allow such an occurrence. Osvaldo Alonso could have been sent off twice on the night — once on a straight red; once on a second yellow — but finished the game with just a single caution. Up next, the Sounders will take on Supporters’ Shield-winning FC Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

10′ — Zusi hits the post with a strike through traffic — Benny Feilhaber’s through ball to set up this double-chance for Sporting in sumptuous, and fully deserving of a proper finish.

53′ — Besler heads home, but he’s offside — This is about as close an onside/offside decisions get.

79′ — Frei denies Feilhaber after a spectacular run — Feilhaber’s run was mesmerizing, but Stefan Frei’s save was the tiniest bit better.

88′ — Valdez heads home the late winner — If Besler was offside, Valdez was offside. An unfitting end to a thrilling game.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Benny Feilhaber

Goalscorers: Valdez (88′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: D.C. United 2-4 Montreal Impact (video)

CORRECTS DATE - Montreal Impact forward Matteo Mancosu, back, celebrates his goal with Ignacio Piatti (10) during the first half of an MLS playoff soccer match against D.C. United, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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The game in 100 words (or less): There are epic playoff collapses, and there is the MLS Cup Playoffs abomination put forth by D.C. United on Thursday. Playing host to a Montreal Impact side that won just two of its last eight regular-season games and crawled over the finish line, United — winners of four of their last five and one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch — no-showed Thursday’s knockout-round tie, and their season is deservingly finished. Laurent Ciman put the Impact ahead inside the first five minutes, and United never recovered or seemed the least bit urgent with their season on the line. Matteo Mancosu bagged a brace either side of halftime to make it 3-0, and Ignacio Piatti, who was his usual brilliant self — so good, in fact, he made you forget Didier Drogba was unavailable due to injury/dispute over his role as a substitute — added a fourth not long before full-time. Lamar Neagle grabbed a late consolation goal for United, bringing them back to 4-1 before Taylor Kemp fired a laser past Evan Bush for 4-2 late in stoppage time, but that’s as close as they’d get. Up next for the Impact, it’s the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three moments that mattered

4′ — Ciman slots home from a corner for 1-0 — An absolute dream start for Montreal, as Ciman gets front side of his marker and benefits from a fortunate bounce after he scuffs the shot.

43′ — Mancosu slams home Piatti’s cross for 2-0 — Someone tell DCU that the knockout round is most definitely win-or-go-home. Horrific defending. Ball-watching all over the place. This is not the same team that won four of their last five in order to host this game.

58′ — Mancosu heads home at the near post for 3-0 — Steve Birnbaum has not had the greatest end to the 2016 season. Stay healthy, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Matteo Mancosu

Goalscorers: Ciman (4′), Mancosu (43′, 58′), Piatti (83′), Neagle (90′), Kemp (90+4′)

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.