Can Brad Guzan take the heat at Aston Villa?

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Paul Lambert has a commendable plan at Aston Villa, to build around his assemblage of talented young men, never mind the inevitable lumps along the way.

So his switch early in the season away from veteran goalkeeper Shay Given to younger American Brad Guzan makes a lot of sense in so many ways. The defense is young, and Guzan proved last year during an injury to the starting incumbent (Given) that he could surely be the future at Villa Park.

When Given stumbled out of the 2012-13 starting block, there really was no decision to be made; it was absolutely the right time Guzan to take over.

The American has generally repaid his bosses’ faith; the performance has been steady as she goes.

But you do have to begin wondering now after such a troubling defensive run. Villa’s last 10 games have seen the youngsters allow 3, 3, 4, 4, 5 and 8 during the span. There were a couple of shutouts, but one was at home to ultra-defensive minded Stoke City, so that gets an asterisk.

How does Wednesday’s Boxing Day loss by a score of 4-0 (Wednesday’s loss to Tottenham) manage to check the box of “vast improvement?” When it follows that harrowing, historic 8-0 thrashing delivered days before at Stamford Bridge by the suddenly rampaging Blues of Chelsea.

So, yes, the last two outings have been dropped by a combined margin of 12-0. Ug. Ly.

None of this has been Guzan’s fault. Not in terms of shot-stopping, at least. Unless you are on the field, it’s impossible to know of Guzan’s larger contributions to the “stop” efforts.

What kind of information the U.S. international is providing to defenders? Is he getting the boys along Villa’s back line into the right spots? Is he in synch with his center backs and outside backs? Are they functioning as a singular unit and not as haphazard individual units in a “back five?”

Either way, the question could be fairly asked: at some point, would the team be better served with a veteran, steady hand, if only temporarily? And this also must be in question at some point: is Guzan’s confidence now at stake?

These are questions that only Lambert can answer.

This much is sure: Villa has fallen perilously close to the drop zone, into the bottom three. That’s a dangerous place, even for a side committed to rebuilding around youth. Thus, this weekend’s contest at Villa Park against Wigan is a “gotta-have.”

Lambert says there is “no pressure” on his young men, and fair enough. But you have to wonder if he’s just saying so to relieve some of the mounting pressure.

There is no pressure like relegation pressure, by the way. Villa and Guzan need this one on Saturday. Bet on that.

Transfer rumor roundup: Koulibaly to Man Utd, Pulisic to Chelsea

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International breaks seem to ratchet up transfer talk, as players are free from their clubs but not from reporters’ microphones.

Whether on or off the record, stories seem to break with more regularity during these periods. This week is no exception.

[ MORE: Netherlands wins, Germany relegated ]

The Daily Record says Manchester United is being urged to make a big defensive buy from Napoli, with Jose Mourinho wanting to count Kalidou Koulibaly amongst his ranks.

Koulibaly has played every Serie A minute for Napoli this season, and chipped in with five goals in playing more than 3000 minutes last season. He has 29 caps for Senegal, and it’s difficult to believe the Neapolitan side would sell him for less than a defender transfer record.

And while Mourinho has been reported to admire the potential of Eric Bailly, he’s not using him right now and the Ivorian may want out sooner rather than later. Purchased from Villarreal for approximately $38 million, Spurs and Arsenal are both being linked with an equal money move for Bailly.

Mourinho would probably trade Bailly for Alderweireld, but Ed Woodward is unlikely to sanction the age sacrifice.

Newcastle is also being tipped with a move for a Serie A player, though this player has not been in the league too long.

Twenty-three year-old Genoa attacker Krzysztof Piątek is the man Newcastle hopes can revive its attack. He cost less than $5 million in the summer, and The Chronicle says Genoa would expect a profit of around $15m.

Piatek and Koulibaly (Photo by Paolo Rattini/Getty Images)

And how about Christian Pulisic? The Daily Mail says that Chelsea is going to push to get the move through the door in January, with the threat of a transfer ban looming over Stamford Bridge.

The report says the price may be dropping as Pulisic is now within a season-and-a-half of his contract’s expiry, and Borussia Dortmund having Jadon Sancho to fill Pulisic’s spot if needed.

Finally, longtime Swans defender Angel Rangel could be heading to MLS, according to Football.London, with his current contract at QPR only running through January. DC United and NYCFC are the teams reportedly dueling for his signature alongside Championship clubs Norwich City, Nottingham Forest, and his current club.

Mancini wants to ‘bring Italy back where it belongs’

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MILAN (AP) A year after its stunning elimination by Sweden in a World Cup playoff, Italy is back at the San Siro stadium for another potentially decisive match.

The Azzurri have to beat Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal on Saturday and then hope the European champion does not defeat Poland three days later in order to reach the UEFA Nations League finals.

[ MORE: Netherlands wins, Germany relegated ]

“We would like to advance, and we’ll try to, but the No. 1 objective remains qualifying for the European Championship,” coach Roberto Mancini said on Friday.

Portugal leads Group 4 with a perfect six points, Italy has four, and Poland one.

The group winner advances to the Final Four in June. Poland is already assured of finishing last in the group and will be relegated to League B.

Mancini was hired after previous coach Gian Piero Ventura was blamed for Italy’s failed World Cup qualification.

“I see a team that wants to roll its sleeves up and bring Italy back where it belongs,” Mancini said. “Let’s be clear, we still need some time, but we’re on the right path.”

Defender Giorgio Chiellini is slated to make his 100th appearance for Italy while wearing the captain’s armband.

“I want to celebrate the achievement only at the end of the match,” Chiellini said. “First let’s focus on Portugal, try to bring home three points and provide continuity to the good work done to this point.”

Chiellini retired from the national team in the aftermath of the loss to Sweden but then changed his mind.

“The real disappointment came in June when many of my club teammates left for Russia while I was preparing my suitcases for vacation,” Chiellini said.

Fellow defender Alessio Romagnoli left Italy’s squad on Friday with a muscular injury, and Italy is also without forward Federico Bernardeschi.

Bernardeschi was a key performer in the 1-0 win over Poland last month, lining up alongside Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa.

Unable to use the same lineup, Mancini announced that Ciro Immobile will likely start at center forward.

Italy has had trouble scoring.

The last time the Azzurri scored more than one goal was in May, a 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia in a friendly , while the last time they accomplished the feat in a competitive match was in June 2017, a 5-0 victory over Liechtenstein in a World Cup qualifier.

Italy next plays the United States in a friendly in Genk, Belgium, on Tuesday.

Mancini announced Chiellini, Alessandro Florenzi, Jorginho and Insigne would be sent home after the Portugal game and Gianluca Mancini and Moise Kean would be called up from the under-21 side.

Mancini and Chiellini both expressed disappointment that Ronaldo, who is taking a break from the national team, isn’t with Portugal.

“It’s always great to face the best players,” Mancini said. “Anyhow, Portugal remains a great squad even without Cristiano.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Netherlands wins, relegates Germany

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Ronald Koeman‘s Netherlands sent Germany into League B, and moved a draw away from the semifinals after taking care of the World Cup champions in the highlight of Friday’s UEFA Nations League matches.

[ WATCH: Salah scores stoppage time winner ]


Netherlands 2-0 France

Georginio Wijnaldum was in a prime position to slot in a rebound after Hugo Lloris made a save on Ryan Babel, and Memphis Depay converted a stoppage time panenka penalty as Netherlands’ win sent Germany into League B.

The Dutch are still alive for A1, and can make the semifinals with a win over Germany on Monday.

Wales 1-2 Denmark

An even match saw Denmark score off a counterattack, with Nicolai Jorgensen supplying the finish off put the Danes ahead of the hosts. Martin Brathwaite made it 2-0 in the 88th minute, with Gareth Bale‘s goal the only Welsh answer a minute later.

Denmark goes top of Group B4, and end Wales’ hopes of promotion to League A. It’s Denmark into the “top flight” next cycle, and the nation is guaranteed at least a playoff spot in qualification for EURO 2020.

Gibraltar 2-6 Armenia

Former Real Salt Lake attacker Yura Movsisyan scored four for captain Henrikh Mkhitaryan‘s side.

Elsewhere
Cyprus 1-1 Bulgaria
Slovenia 1-1 Norway
Liechtenstein 0-2 Macedonia
Slovakia 4-1 Ukraine

Salah scores last-minute winner against Tunisia (video)

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Egypt needs Mohamed Salah, and the Liverpool forward reinforced that fact on Friday in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier versus Tunisia.

Deadlocked at two, Salah burst into the box on the right wing via a 1-2 with Salah Mohsen and used deft move to make enough space to blast a shot home.

[ MORE: England rocks the USMNT ]

It was vintage Salah, right down to the red shirt.

Egypt has qualified for this summer’s tournament in Cameroon and is tied for the top of the group with one match to go. Egypt travels to Niger in March while Tunisia hosts Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland).

Here’s the goal, his 39th in 62 caps for the Pharoahs.