Crucial win sees Aston Villa move out of Premier League drop zone

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Aston Villa were the better team for most of this one, but it’s relatively common state for Villa – the superficial, unrewarded control that Paul Lambert’s team has often “enjoyed” throughout a troubling campaign. When an early Nathan Baker own goal left Villa to rue Christian Benteke’s early misses, Lambert’s team looked set for what would have been a crushing loss.

But today was one of the rare instances were Villa’s quality came good. A quick response from Benteke pulled Villa even, and when Gabriel Agbonlahor put the visitors up 2-1 at half time, Villa had all they needed. After 45 more minutes of Reading looking like the 19th place team they are, Aston Villa had a desperately needed three points, with Brad Guzan only having to make three saves.

Villa came into the match in 18th place, an astonishing station for one of the bigger clubs in English soccer. But their poor results and lack of improvement had pundits and fans questioning if they were destined to go down.

That made today’s match at Reading crucial. Not only was the game against one of the league’s bottom feeders a chance for crucial points, but Villa couldn’t afford to give Reading a needed boost.

Instead, it was the Lions that got the boost, one that came from the two men you’d expect to step up. Benteke has clearly been Villa’s best player this season. His goal was no surprise, but that it was Agbonlahor who scored such an important goal was apt. He is one of the few impact players left from the Martin O’Neill teams that serve as the reference point for the club’s current plight.

Those teams competed for Europe. This team’s fighting for survival. Three points at Reading took a huge step toward that goal, if for no other reason than it puts the Royals on the bring of the Championship.

With the result, Villa moves into 17th place, pushing Wigan into the drop. The Latics have a match in hand, having been pulled into FA Cup competition on Saturday. With a goal difference advantage, Wigan would stay up, should they convert on their match in hand.

But with nine games to go in the season, a three-point lead only matters so much. How the team’s playing is arguably more important. It portends to future points – points that could render Wigan’s match in hand irrelevant.

Villa took a big step forward today. The competition wasn’t fierce, but for a team that has often failed to convert control into concrete results, three points were huge.

Here’s Gabby Agbonlahor’s game-winner, courtesy FOX Soccer:

Ronaldo explains his new chin hair at World Cup

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
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Now that Cristiano Ronaldo has taken to sporting a reasonable hairstyle atop his head, people are talking about the foliage on his face.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

Ronaldo, 33, drew speculation when he stroked his chin following a goal in his hat trick performance against Spain in the World Cup opener. Some said he was demonstrating defiance against Lionel Messi posing with a goat (Greatest Of All Time) in a recent photograph.

Ronaldo scored again on Wednesday, and there was seemingly little doubt his goatee was a wink to the speculators. But what did it mean, CR7? From ESPN:

“This goatee? It’s a joke I had with [Ricardo] Quaresma. “We were in the sauna [before Friday’s match against Spain] and I started to shave and I left the goatee. I said if I score tomorrow, I would leave it for the rest of the tournament. And it gave me luck.

“I scored in that game, I scored in this one, so it stays.”

Personally, I like to imagine Ronaldo starting to get as wild with his facial hair as he did his head hair.

Perhaps a beatnik style, or something like Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Get nuts, C-Ron.

Report: Southampton could sell Tadic to Ajax for $20m

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Could Southampton be selling one of its most creative forces?

Dusan Tadic, 29, is in the middle of a World Cup run with dark horse Serbia, but the Saints star is also being talked about as a purchase item for Ajax.

[ MORE: Serbia tops Costa Rica ]

The celebrated Eredivisie has traditionally been a selling club for the Premier League, but could be a $20 million buy for Ajax.

The report says director of players Marc Overmars and financial director Jeroen Slop have flown to Southampton to work out a deal.

Tadic starred for Dutch sides Groningen and Twente between 2010-14 before moving to St. Mary’s for a reported $12 million.

He’s scored 24 goals with 35 assists in 162 appearances for Saints, 21 and 30 of which came in the Premier League.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE