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Three things learned: Aston Villa v. Fulham

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Fulham sealed promotion back to the Premier League on Saturday as the 10-man Cottagers beat Aston Villa 1-0 in the Championship playoff final at Wembley.

Tom Cairney‘s strike midway through the first half was enough to send Fulham back to the top-flight and leave Villa heartbroken.

Here’s a look at what we learned from a tense battle in the heat at Wembley.


FLUID FULHAM FIT FOR TOP-FLIGHT 

Since December Fulham’s fluid, attacking style of play saw them go on an incredible run of just one defeat in 24 games as they just missed out on automatic promotion with a defeat on the final day of the season.

The Cottagers’ silky play won them the playoff final as Slavisa Jokanovic’s men stuck to their playing philosophy with Tom Cairney pulling the strings in midfield, Aleksandar Mitrovic a handful up front and teenager Ryan Sessegnon floating about to cause havoc. They dropped deeper in the second half as Villa went at them but still had good chances and always looked dangerous on the break, even when they were down to 10-men after Denis Odoi picked up a second yellow card.

With their brave style of play, Fulham will add panache to the Premier League.

You can expect special things down by the banks of the River Thames at Craven Cottage as American owner Shahid Khan will no doubt splash the cash to take them to the next level after they dropped out of the big time in 2014. They will be desperate to solidify themselves back in the top-flight.

Fulhamerica is back and on that note U.S. men’s national team center back Tim Ream had himself a heck of a game at the heart of Fulham’s defense at Wembley to help seal the deal.


SESSEGNON SENSATIONAL

You can understand exactly why the biggest clubs in England have been chasing Sessegnon for many years.

The 18-year-old was the Player of the Season in the Championship and he was involved in the key moment in the final as the Fulham academy graduate has been the main reason they’re back in the Premier League.

Sessegnon finished the season as Fulham’s top goalscorer with 17 goals and there were many pushing for him to be included in England’s World Cup squad this summer. He has all of the talent available to flourish as a wide forward in the top-flight and after Matt Targett‘s arrival in January he has been pushed further forward from left back and has thrived.

There’s no doubt that Sessegnon is destined for big things but now he has the fairtyale end to a fairytale season for him at Fulham.


VILLA’S EXPERIENCED HEADS RATTLED

Villa’s experienced defense boasts Ahmed Elmohamady, John Terry, James Chester and Alan Hutton and in a massive game at Wembley they were rattled early on and Villa couldn’t quite drag themselves back into the game.

Steve Bruce‘s side had the second-best defensive record in the second-tier this season and they kept Fulham from opening them up for most of the first half but one lapse in concentration was exploited by Sessegnon and Cairney as Hutton stepped up, Terry was caught out and Villa conceded.

To be fair to Bruce’s side they dragged themselves back into the game impressively after a turgid first half display and were easily the better team after the break with Jack Grealish pulling the strings.

Grealish (who could well have been sent off) squandered two good chances either side of half time with a rising shot in the first half and then a header he should’ve done better with in the second, while the English playmaker also danced through Fulham’s defense before being denied by Marcus Bettinelli.

Villa have made significant progress this season under Bruce but you have to wonder if he and most of this Villa squad will be around next season, especially after a year of struggle off the pitch for Bruce as he lost both of his parents within a few months.

If Bruce sticks around then Villa will be one of the favorites for promotion next season.

Spanish federation withholds approval of match in U.S.

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BARCELONA, Spain — The Spanish league’s plan to play a regular-season match in the United States was put in serious doubt Friday after the national soccer federation refused to give its approval, according to a person with knowledge of the decision.

The person told The Associated Press that the federation sent a letter to league officials withholding its authorization of playing of a competitive match between Barcelona and Girona on Jan. 26 in suburban Miami unless certain conditions are met. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

According to the person, the federation told the league it has failed to show that the overseas match would comply with Spanish and international regulations and TV broadcast contracts, and that it would not harm the other 18 league clubs and the fans of Girona and Barcelona.

The federation requested more documentation from the league on the proposal, but the person with knowledge of the situation told the AP that it believed the “holes” in the league’s proposal are “insurmountable.”

Shortly after receiving the letter, Spanish league president Javier Tebas said he still hopes to hold the match in Miami.

“The game is still on,” Tebas said. “We believe we are right, and we will try to show that to the relevant authorities. We are going to respond to everything they say and we will keep working.”

Tebas said that the match was critical to increasing the league’s global reach and rivaling the richer Premier League in England.

“This match is very important in our strategic plan in the United States,” Tebas said. “I can assure you that we are not going to just accept that they tell us no.”

Tebas did not explain what possible options the league could have of circumventing the federation’s refusal, other than convincing federation president Luis Rubiales to change his mind.

Besides the Spanish federation, the match would also need to be approved by the U.S. soccer federation, plus continental bodies UEFA and CONCACAF.

The league asked the federation for authorization to play the match last week.

The refusal by the federation was first reported by Spanish radio station COPE.

While the Spanish league manages the country’s two top divisions of men’s teams and the women’s league, the federation is the official governing body that sets the rules and regulations for all soccer played in the country.

The Spanish players’ union and some fans have been critical of the plan to play competitive matches abroad.

Even though FIFA’s permission is not mandatory, president Gianni Infantino also expressed his doubts about the game earlier this week when he said that he would “prefer to see a great MLS game in the U.S. rather than La Liga being in the U.S.”

The Spanish league has never played a match in another country, but the Spanish federation held its season-opening Super Cup abroad for the first time in August. Barcelona beat Sevilla in Tangier, Morocco.

The league’s plan to play games in the United States is part of a new 15-year partnership with sports and entertainment group Relevent, which operates the International Champions Cup, a tournament played during the European offseason in July and August around the world.

MLS Weekend Preview: Fringe playoff teams get tough tests

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A number of Major League Soccer clubs fighting for playoff position have extremely difficult tasks this weekend as the MLS season reaches the final five or six matches of the year.

In the Eastern Conference, the two teams just above the playoff cut – Montreal and Philadelphia – both meet top-tier sides. Montreal meets NYCFC on Saturday, while Philadelphia hosts Western Conference leaderes Sporting KC on Sunday. With D.C. United off this weekend, the teams have an opportunity to pull away, with Philadelphia able to give itself an 11 point lead, a near certainty to make the postseason.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver Whitecaps sit four games back of Seattle for the final Western Conference playoff spot, and the Whitecaps welcome second-place FC Dallas to BC Place. Just above Seattle is Real Salt Lake, and they travel to Eastern Conference leaders Atlanta United.

So which team in the playoff hunt will fall into danger, and which will pick up key momentum?

Atlanta United vs. Real Salt Lake – Saturday 9/22, 7:00 p.m. ET

Real Salt Lake has lost just one of its last nine, but that will be put to the test with a visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to take on Atlanta United. San Jose did its best to hold on for dear life, but was ultimately unable to hold off the blazing guns of the visitors. The usual suspects were at it again for Atlanta in Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, and RSL will have plenty to think about, especially having kept just one clean sheet since the start of August.

Montreal Impact vs. NYCFC – Saturday 9/22, 7:30 p.m. ET

Montreal took one major step towards securing a playoff spot with a win over Philadelphia, and now a much stiffer test awaits as they welcome NYCFC to town. The Eastern Conference’s third-placed side is coming off a bye week, last playing September 8. While the top of the table is out of reach for NYCFC, a few more points would secure positioning for the postseason. They have faded of late, however, without a win in over a month.

Philadelphia Union vs. Sporting KC – Sunday 9/23, 1:00 p.m. ET

Both teams have suffered just one loss over their last seven games, and while both teams have offensive capabilities, only one has the defensive structure to go with it. Outside of a 3-1 loss at Seattle, Sporting KC has conceded just one single goal in its last six matches. Meanwhile, Philadelphia will be without the suspended Jack Elliott, a major loss for a team that has improved drastically at the back since Elliott’s introduction to the starting lineup in early August.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. FC Dallas – Sunday 9/23, 7:00 p.m. ET

Vancouver sits just one single position out of the playoffs, four points behind sixth-place Seattle, but lost to the Sounders last weekend and must pick up the pieces from that major Cascadia stumble. The first roadblock is a big one, welcoming the Western Conference’s 2nd placed team. Since being shut out by Real Salt Lake in early July, FC Dallas has bagged 19 goals in its last nine games, although they were blanked last time out in a 0-0 draw with Columbus after a forgettable 90 minutes.

LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders – Sunday 9/23, 7:00 p.m. ET

The LA Galaxy are in slightly more peril than the Whitecaps find themselves in, and now they draw the side that beat Vancouver last weekend in the Sounders. Seattle had its winning streak finally come to an end at a relatively inopportune time, but there is still time to recover before the playoffs begin. In fact, they must recover – and fast – because Seattle is just four points above the cut line, sitting in sixth. A critical “six-pointer” at the StubHub Center will see the home side look to become the first team since the start of July to put two goals or more past Seattle.

Other games

LAFC vs. San Jose Earthquakes – Saturday @ 3:30 p.m. ET
NY Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC – Saturday @ 5:00 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew vs. Colorado Rapids – Saturday @ 7:30 p.m. ET
New England Revolution vs. Chicago Fire – Saturday @ 7:30 p.m. ET
Orlando City vs. Houston Dynamo – Saturday @ 7:30 p.m. ET
Minnesota United vs. Portland Timbers – Saturday @ 8:00 p.m. ET

PL Preview: Fulham vs. Watford

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  • Fulham has conceded at least 2 goals in its last 9 PL games
  • Watford has lost 8 straight PL matches in London
  • Fulham will become the 15th English team to reach 500 PL games

One team still sorting out the kinks, one team is off to a blistering start.

Fulham hopes to shore things up as the Whites host fourth-placed Watford at Craven Cottage Saturday at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com. The hosts have been porous defensively, with 12 goals allowed through the first five matches of the season, the most in the Premier League.

[ WATCH LIVE: Fulham vs. Watford live on NBCSports.com ]

Still, manager Slavisa Jokanovic has rebuffed calls to set the tactics up more defensively, instead calling on his team to be “more brave” as the season rolls on, pushing forward with the “offense is the best defense” mindset. Jokanovic, who coached Watford to promotion in 2015 but left before Premier League play after failing to agree to a new deal, has been praised for his steadfastness in his tactical style but also criticized for the early results.

Watford took time to find true stability in the Premier League without Jokanovic, finishing one place above relegation last season, but under Javi Gracia the Hornets have sprung to life over the past few weeks. Gracia is the one with stability now, having named the exact same starting lineup for every Premier League game so far, and Watford could become only the fifth English club ever to name the same starting lineup for the first six games of a Premier League season. Gerard Deulofeu and Tom Cleverley are both long-term absentees, while Nathaniel Chalobah is the only real question mark as he recovers from a serious knee injury, and he is likely to return to the squad, Gracia said.

The Fulham squad, on the other hand, is a mess. Captain Tom Cairney is out with an ankle injury, a massive miss for a team that focuses on possession and build-up. American defender Tim Ream is also out with a knee problem, back in training finally but still yet to debut this season after winning the club’s Player of the Season award last year. Without Ream, Jokanovic has struggled to find his best defensive partnership, with Denis Odoi plus new signings Calum Chambers, Maxim Le Marchand, and Alfie Mawson all showing weaknesses. The Whites are also without winger Neeskens Kebano who suffered an ankle injury in a Cup match against Exeter City in late August.

What they’re saying

Fulham manager Jokanovic on his team’s attacking mentality: “People are asking if we can be a little more pragmatic but, for me, being pragmatic is being brave. The brave choice for me is the best way to win the game. I think we are still not brave enough. Why would we be scared, why are we not braver and trusting in ourselves?”

Watford manager Gracia on bouncing back from first loss: “They do not need good results to know the performances have been good and, in this moment, the players are confident they will be able to keep their performance levels up. We will try to keep our style of play, maintain our mentality and be aggressive.”

Prediction

Watford started the season with a bang, but have not kept a clean sheet since the second match of the year. That could pose problems facing a team that loves to push forward, and there should be goals in this match. It will likely end in a 2-2 draw.

PL Preview: Liverpool vs. Southampton

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  • Southampton has not scored a PL goal vs. Liverpool since 2016, a run of 4 games
  • Liverpool has never won its first 7 matches in a season in club history
  • Southampton has not won vs. any of last season’s PL top 6 teams in 24 games

Liverpool finally showed a weakness. Liverpool was finally human.

Until they weren’t.

When the Reds toppled Paris Saint-Germain in the 91st minute on Tuesday, it struck fear into the hearts of the rest of Europe. Can anyone actually stop this whirring machine? Sure, you might score some goals against Liverpool, but can you score enough?

[ WATCH LIVE: Liverpool vs. Southampton on NBCSports.com ]

Southampton visits Anfield hoping to avoid becoming Liverpool’s next victim Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m. ET live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com. The Saints have been a mixed bag so far this season, but coughing up a 2-0 lead at home to Brighton last weekend was a less than ideal way to send the team off to Anfield. Not only that, but they’ll have to match the Reds without top scorer Danny Ings, who is ineligible to play against his parent club.

That thrusts strike partner Shane Long into a solo role, or forces Mark Hughes to bring on the misfiring Manolo Gabbiadini to pair with Long, although the Italian is struggling with a hamstring injury himself and will require a late fitness test to make the squad. Either way, it appears a daunting task for the visitors to Merseyside.

For the Reds, Roberto Firmino is fully healthy, having recovered completely from his eye injury suffered last weekend against Tottenham. Adam LallanaDivock Origi, and Dominic Solanke are all out injured but otherwise the squad is nearly complete. Only Dejan Lovren remains on the sidelines, but even the Croatian is nearing a return from his pelvic injury.

What they’re saying

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on playing at home: “Are we ready to create the best atmosphere of all games? That would be cool. We need to show Southampton how difficult it is to come to Anfield.”

Southampton manager Mark Hughes on playing Liverpool: “It’s a game that is going to test us because the team we are facing looks on top of their form in terms of individuals and the collective functioning really well.”

Prediction

Southampton has looked promising this season in spurts, but this isn’t the game where they put it all together. Liverpool is a nearly unstoppable force at home, and there’s no reason that should change. The only concerning bit of information for Liverpool heading into this match is last season’s record following Champions League games, when they won just once while losing once and drawing four, but this year has proven Liverpool has a new gear. The Reds will win 3-1, with things shaky for some time down the stretch until a late insurance goal puts the game away.