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… And we barely squeaked by again

Yep, that's about right. (Mirror)

Yep, that’s about right. (Mirror)

Thanks to Arsenal’s 4-1 victory over FA Cup winner Wigan, Aston Villa get yet another reprieve from a possible relegation from the Premier League. I’m actually a little sad to see Wigan go (and not just because they’re this guy’s favorite team.) Along with playing a fairly attractive style of attacking soccer, Wigan have long been one of the smallest budget teams in the Premier League. Unfortunately, it’s likely that they’ll be replaced by one, if not two teams that could potentially play the boom (Manchester City) or bust (Queens Park Rangers/Portsmouth) strategy of throwing money at the club ’til they either finish in a European place or go insolvent. Meanwhile, Wigan will try to hang onto Roberto Martinez as manager, and failing that, will likely become one of the other clubs to fall under the spell of journeymen managers such as Steve McLaren or Alex McLeish and watch their fanbase shrink amid mediocrity, away trips to the likes of Brighton and Barnsley and long-ball football. Sorry, Dorian, but at least you won some silverware.

So where does that leave Villa, who haven’t been shy about throwing money at the team in the hope of success (some of which we got, middlingly) before gradually the well spring dried up? Well, hopefully better off. Now that our sky high wage bill has been trimmed significantly and the team has begun to cultivate its much-ballyhooed academy into actually producing some starters, I feel like we could see our first mid-table finish in three years in 2014. This will obviously depend on the club holding onto the likes of Christian Benteke, who won’t be short of suitors, but might cost a bit too much for a player that could still be a flash in the pan (though I don’t think he is.) A couple positions need to be strengthened – Shay Given is almost certainly on the way out, so we need a new backup keeper or someone to challenge Brad Guzan for No. 1. Joe Bennett has either been horrendous or just not very good, depending on how optimistic Aston Villa fans are. Regardless, he, nor Eric Lichaj, seems quite ready to be a day-in-day-out starter, so someone new should be coming in. And with Benteke unlikely to stay with the club beyond 2014 unless Villa make a serious push for Europe, reinforcements in attack won’t be a bad idea. A bit of deadwood needs to be chopped as well. Richard Dunne will leave after not playing a match this season, no doubt to suddenly be healthy enough to play for a club like Stoke or Sunderland. Charles N’Zogbia and Stephen Ireland showed flashes of brilliance in the last two season, but neither did often enough to really justify paying their wages. And a few (though only a few) of the new signings weren’t quite up to snuff – meaning Bennett, Karim El-Ahmadi, Brett Holman and Simon Dawkins. So at least a couple of those will likely hit the road. And of course, Darren Bent is gone, though most Villa fans won’t miss him.

As for the good, the attacking trio of Benteke-Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann was certainly exciting at times. I think the midfield trio of Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood and Yacouba Sylla (plus the returning Gary Gardner) looks to have a bright future. And Matt Lowton and Nathan Baker could end up getting calls up to the England squad if they continue to progress. Like I said, there is hope. I don’t want to speculate on who Villa might bring in – based on Lambert’s first transfer window, probably a couple unknown young players from League One. I wouldn’t be disappointed to see Norwich’s Wes Hoolahan join the club as an attacking midfielder. We might not challenge for a Champions League spot … again, but a return to being a solid midtable side – best of the rest, if you will – wouldn’t be a bad thing to look forward to.

Three Things I Want For My Birthday

Great player, but man is his team dull

Great player, but man is his team dull

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer

It’s Thursday, by the way. Send gifts.

1. Aston Villa beats Queens Park Rangers this weekend. I’ve sworn off watching Aston Villa matches for the rest of the season, but I can still cheer for them. A win in this match could potentially put Villa 6 points clear of the relegation zone with 8 matches to play. It would also be doubly successful in that QPR would be 7 points behind Villa and would need to win roughly half of their matches even to have a chance. They wouldn’t be safe from relegation, but it would require the bottom clubs to improve significantly the last couple months.

2. MLS teams to beat Mexican teams in the CONCACAF Champions League this week. Unlike many American fans, I have no ill will toward Liga Mex fans – I remember cheering for Pachuca in the SuperLiga a few years back. But with that said, MLS teams winning in the Champions League – and as I type this, Seattle looks on the verge of knocking Tigres out, will not only improve MLS’s standing on the continent, but the world stage as well. Which means better players will come in. And Mexican teams will quit so obviously playing B teams when they play MLS sides in these types of matches. Win-win. And Pachuca isn’t competing, so no harm done.

3. A Champions League final that isn’t Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. There are plenty of fun, quality teams left in the Champions League – Bayern, Dortmund, PSG, Malaga (if they beat Porto, or Porto if they win), Galatasaray. Clearly Barcelona and Real Madrid are probably favorites for this along with, I don’t know, Bayern and PSG, but I’m bored to death by El Clasico. And Barca in general. Sure, great players, mostly great team, but other teams have long ago figured out how to play them – sure, it might not work most of the time, but their matches are guaranteed to have one team passing the ball endlessly through the midfield and along the backline. Probing, then passing back. It’s dull. Without a serviceable, direct attacking forward, Barca are horribly predictable, whether or not they have three of the best players of the world. And it does not make for good watching. I’d much rather take, say, Bayern-Dortmund or Gala-Bayern. Yes, please.

My team stinks

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer

I began watching soccer in earnest around the time of the 2006 World Cup. I’d always enjoyed it, but prior to that time I hadn’t sought it out. But for some reason, when the World Cup started, I was entranced. I remember sitting at a Greek restaurant ignoring the person I was eating with, because I was watching Cristiano Ronaldo flop around and prance and preen in the way that he is now famous for – somewhat interestingly, I think the only world cup match I missed was the final where Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Matterazzi, essentially giving Italy the title (though they’d have to win it on penalty kicks). After the world cup, I added the DirecTV sports package solely so I could watch Fox Soccer and Setanta. The maxim I usually give to new fans is that you’re forced to pick a team after one year of following a league religiously (though I have to admit I haven’t followed that with the MLS). So after a year of watching English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Mexican Primera Division matches, I settled on Aston Villa, the “slumbering giant” of English football.

Villa are historically one of the most successful teams in England – one of only five clubs to win what is now known as the Champions League, seven-time first division champions, seven-time FA Cup winners, five-time League Cup winners and European Super Cup winners – more England internationals have played for Villa than any other team. In 2006, after a rough couple seasons, they had a new owner – Randy Lerner, one of the richest people in the world and owner of the Cleveland Browns. They had just hired manager Martin O’Neill, who had led Scottish club Celtic to the final of the UEFA Cup, Europe’s second-tier cup competition. And they had a team comprised of young, hungry players on the verge of being called up to the England squad. So I picked Villa as my team. I mean, it couldn’t be an established power like Chelsea or gag, Manchester United or a nouveau riche club like Chelsea (or soon to be Manchester City). Villa had the right mix of history and potential. Early on, it was quite a ride. O’Neill’s first season was mixed – the team started off undefeated after 11 matches, then slumped and was in the bottom half of the table before a late run had them finish 11th. With new signings like Ashley Young and John Carew, the 2007-08 season looked promising, and it was. The team shot up the standings and briefly flirted with a Champions League spot before finishing sixth. The next season? Well, we were competing in the UEFA Cup and once again fighting for a Champions League spot, before, again, finishing sixth. The third season? More of the same. And people started to complain. Had Villa reached its ceiling under O’Neill? Three sixth-place finishes. One League Cup final loss to Manchester United where we felt undone by a bad refereeing decision. Another FA Cup semifinal. The UEFA Cup knockout round tie against CSKA Moscow where we fielded a youth team in the snow and were knocked out. Were players like James Milner, Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Stewart Downing good enough to take Villa to the next level?

Well, O’Neill left. A week before the 2010-11 season. After the chaos of not having a replacement for a few weeks, we signed former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, who was vastly experienced, but also, well, old. Houllier attempted to change the culture of the team and bring in his own players. It backfired. Villa struggled all year and only made a good run at the end of the season once Houllier was on leave for illness to finish 9th. Houllier was dismissed amid doubts over his health. Carew left. Young was sold. Milner was gone. Downing was sold. Villa hired Alex McLeish, who had just managed Villa’s hated rival Birmingham City to relegation from the league (and a League Cup victory, but still). McLeish brought in his players. It didn’t go well. In fairness, he would never have been accepted, but the team’s middling play and his reactive tactics didn’t help. Villa finished with their lowest point total in the Premiership era and only avoided relegation thanks to other teams performing more poorly. McLeish was dismissed in favor of Paul Lambert, manager of a Norwich team that beat Villa on its final day. Optimism was back, but not money. Neither was captain Stiliyan Petrov, diagnosed with leukemia. Gone were the days of signing players with the likes of Valencia and PSV and AC Milan on their CV in favor of youngsters from lower divisions. Petrov-Barry in midfield was now replaced with Delph-Westwood (who?). Mellberg-Laursen in the center of defense had poor imitators in Clark and Vlaar. With only Agbonlahor the holdover of the “glory days” of the late 2000s, Villa fans were now forced to cheer for the likes of Brett Holman and Jordan Bowery. And Villa stink. How bad do Villa stink? Three wins at home in 2012. The entire year. 30 points from 38 matches in 2012. Eighteenth in the Premier League table. (Anywhere below 17 gets you relegated at the end of the year). Agbonlahor has scored 10 goals the last three years total after scoring 44 the four years before. Villa gave up 8 goals to Chelsea. Four to Tottenham Hotspur. Five to Manchester City. They blew 2-0 leads to Manchester United and West Brom. They conceded three goals to Wigan. They gave up four to Southampton. Bradford became the first fourth-division team ever to beat a Premier League team in the League Cup semifinal by beating Villa. At one point, Villa had scored the fewest goals in the top four divisions of English football and given up the most. We stink.

So where does that leave me now? Well, I stopped watching Aston Villa matches this season, choosing instead to check Twitter for updates. I’ve largely stopped watching the Premier League at all, choosing instead to focus my time on the MLS and the German Bundesliga, both of which are much more competitive and less money-driven. If Aston Villa survives this season (or maybe even if they don’t), they’ll probably be much improved next year when their bevy of young players has a full season of Premier League play under their belts. We’ll also have successfully shed the team of all the enormous contracts that were probably signed with the hope of Champions League football and its big payday. And then maybe one day the team will start competing again with the big boys. Maybe.

Aston Villa quarter-season review

Courtesy: The Guardian
A sight Villa fans haven’t seen much this year.

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer

Ugh. Can I just write that? No, I probably shouldn’t. After narrowly avoiding relegation last season, in what was arguably the worst of Villa’s 138-year existence, a new manager (Paul Lambert) a bevy of new players and a slew of jettisoned highly paid, underperforming players had most fans at least hopeful for the future. Unfortunately, most of the doom-and-gloom talk about the players brought in by Lambert – “Can’t win with kids,” “Can’t win with lower league players” has proven true as Villa has limped to, well, the same position they were in this before. So far, Villa has one win in nine matches – and if you go back to last season, only one win in their last 19 – which is the worst start for the team in 43 years. And with owner Randy Lerner seemingly no longer willing to invest the money in the squad that he would when Villa was a consistent competitor for one of England’s four Champions League spots, the team’s presence in the Premier League looks a bit tenuous at best.

The Good

Positivity. As bad as Villa has been to start the season, they are trying to introduce seven new, young players in the squad, so a bit of a struggle at the start isn’t too big of a surprise. Luckily, fans have been largely patient, especially in light of how miserable everyone was last year, when a decent team struggled under Alex McLeish, who remains a reviled figure.

Ron Vlaar. “Concrete Ron” has been a big hit since signing from Feyenoord – he’s already been named the team’s captain and is emerging as a fan favorite while also being certainly the team’s most solid defender. As a point of fact, the defense has been just fine for the team so far – their problems lie elsewhere, as we’ll discuss.

Brett Holman. The Australian international’s energy and attacking play have been fun to watch. You’d think that with a little more solid play in midfield for him to build upon, he might start chipping in some goals. Certainly seems more up for it than some other players on the team.

Brad Guzan. After spending an eternity backing up Brad Friedel and then Shay Given in goal, the American has taken the opportunity to replace Given as starter and has been one of the better goalkeepers in the league this season. Without him, Villa would surely be in the relegation zone already.

The Bad

Fullbacks. Sure, Matt Lowton and Joe Bennett are young and had to make the step up a couple divisions, but they’ve struggled. There is no doubt that the two players – particularly Lowton – show some promise, but it’s questionable whether Villa might be better served restoring Alan Hutton and Eric Lichaj to starting places – or letting Enda Stevens or Chris Herd give it a shot.

Forwards. Darren Bent looks like he is already playing for some other team in daydreams in his mind – while he’s on the pitch. Christian Benteke is another player who shows great promise, but his finishing has often cost the team points. Gabby Agbonlahor is a longstanding servant for the club who seems no longer capable of scoring goals on a regular basis, and Andreas Weimann hasn’t played enough to make a difference. After being the second-lowest scoring team in the league last year, it was thought that Lambert would turn Villa into a high-scoring squad that can’t defend. Unfortunately, the opposite has occurred, and it’s largely because none of these players are scoring.

Lack of Width. The idea of a team playing with two or three narrow attacking midfielders is that the fullbacks  will move forward and create width down the flanks for the team. Unfortunately, with Lowton and Bennett’s struggles in defending, that hasn’t happened. What that means is that the team is failing to create much in attack because Holman/Ireland/Albrighton are all bunched up in the middle with no outlet for a pass. So why not just move back to two wingers? Big questions, people.

The Ugly

Midfield. I’m a fan of new signing Karim El-Ahmadi, who is one of the best passers we’ve had in midfield in a long time. Unfortunately, he’s not a big physical presence and he’s a poor tackler. What this means is, Villa needs another big, strong midfielder to keep other teams from dominating the midfield. What has happened, though, is that Lambert has stuck with Fabian Delph, a once highly-thought-of England youth player who Villa bought for a lot of money four years ago who has never looked good enough to be a Premier League player. He certainly isn’t imposing physically, and he’s a terrible tackler. The only other option Lambert seems keen on using is Barry Bannan, who is a better player than Delph, but probably even more lightweight. So Villa’s midfield has been largely dominated by the more powerful midfields of teams like Tottenham, Everton and, well, everyone else. Why didn’t we sign Mohammed Diame or Stephen N’Zonzi?

Moving forward

With the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea coming up, Villa is looking increasingly likely to head into November in a relegation spot. Though being in the Bottom 3 in December is no guarantee of a team getting relegated, it’s certainly not where fans thought the team would be when McLeish was dismissed. So what’s the answer? Well, it’s become increasingly apparent that the team’s 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 diamond formation isn’t working. There are players in the squad who could be serviceable, if not great, wingers. (Holman, Albrighton, Charles N’Zogbia, Agbonlahor) Why not make the team a traditional 4-4-2 with N’Zogbia and Holman or Albrighton on the wings, and then start Benteke and Weimann up front? It’s true that Bent is a better striker than either player, but he doesn’t work hard and doesn’t seem interested in being at Villa anymore. Then Lambert could pair El-Ahmadi with Stephen Ireland, Holman, Bannan or, I don’t know, Ciaran Clark in midfield, which would at least give the team some decent passing in midfield and an outlet on the wings. Restore Lichaj to left back and start giving Hutton playing time again at fullback.

What we need in January

A good, experienced midfielder. How about Frank Lampard on loan, since he seems so set on leaving Chelsea? Stephen Warnock back from loan could help the squad as well. PSG’s Mathieu Bodmer might be a good signing since he’s no longer first choice at that club and would offer the strength and size we’re missing.
Wide players. Midfield is more important, but we’re severely missing the likes of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing who excelled for us in the past. Bringing Downing back might be an option – as well as signing Joe Cole, who has hardly featured for Liverpool. Looking to the U.S. for one of its highly rated young wingers like Brek Shea or Graham Zusi might be a good (and cheap) option as well.
Experienced fullbacks. Lambert seems committed to his young fullback project, but unless they start to turn some of their potential into actual solid play soon, he will need to add some experience at those positions. Since buying new players seems unlikely in this position with our new cost-cutting system in place, why not let Hutton and Warnock fill in, at least occasionally. They might be slow and mistake-prone, but based on our performance so far, they wouldn’t be that much of a step down – they might even be a step up.
Sell Darren Bent. I’ve been a fan of the England forward for a while, but it’s clear that his time at the club is almost over. It’s not totally his fault – injuries have played their part, and he surely wouldn’t have joined the team had he known Young and Downing would be sold. He is a pure poacher in the sense that if you create chances, he’ll score goals, but he isn’t a hard worker, and it’s questionable whether he should be with the team at all with the style of football we’re trying to play; he’s not going to track back or try and win the ball, and he’s not getting very many scoring chances when he does play. Plus, the 15 million (roughly) that we would get for him would likely finance some players in midfield.

Will we be relegated this season? I still say no, but it’s clear that some changes need to be made by the manager, whether in formation or changing what players play regularly. If he doesn’t make them, or if he does and they don’t work? Well, the Championship will give me an opportunity to see some new stadiums and players I haven’t watched before. I guess.

Player Ratings: Southampton 4, Aston Villa 1

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer

A miserable second half performance sees Villa drop their third match of the season. I don’t have much to say about it.

Record: 1-1-3, 4 pts; 5 goals for, 9 against
Guzan – 6; Not really his fault we gave up four, besides the foul at the end, but hopefully he won’t be back on the bench next game.
Lichaj – 5; Poor defensively, but possibly even worse offensively
Vlaar – 6; Maybe not his best game, but it certainly wasn’t his fault the way Southampton carved us open in the second half.
Clark – 6; Like Vlaar, spent most of the second half trying to cope with attacking players allowed too much space by the midfield. Probably didn’t close Lambert down quickly enough on the first goal.
Lowton – 5; A fine attacking fullback who can’t defend. Seems to fall asleep at key moments (goals two and three, all the Everton goals). But hey, who else are we gonna play there?
El-Ahmadi – 5; Probably his poorest game of the season
Ireland – 6; Wasn’t particularly great in the first half, but we were much worse without him in the second half.
Bannan – 5.5; Was active at least. Has the tendency of trying too many long crossfield balls when the simple pass will do.
Holman – 5; Spent too much time trying to help out Lowton on the right and gave the ball away often when he had it. Good attacking player, but not a great midfielder.
Bent – 6; Scored a goal and was reasonably active, at least for him.
Benteke – 5.5; A threat on set pieces and had one nice long pass for Bent, but the team resorts to the long ball when he’s on the field, and it got them nowhere. Maybe better as an impact sub?
Westwood – 5; Didn’t look prepared for Championship level midfielders.
Agbonlahor – NR; Don’t recall him touching the ball. Where was he, on the left?
Bennett – NR; Didn’t look much better than Lichaj after replacing him.

It’s just one game, but it sure was disappointing. I don’t think we’ll get relegated, but this is going to be another long, frustrating season.
For the next match, I’d like it if we returned Weimann to the starting lineup and maybe gave Stevens or Bennett a runout at one of the fullback spots.

Match Report: Aston Villa 1, Everton 3

Goals: Aston Villa — El Ahmadi 75 (Lichaj); Everton — Pienaar 3 (Naismith) , Fellaini 31 (Jagielka), Jelavic 44 (Baines)

Shots: Aston Villa 9 (2 on target); Everton 22 (6)

Possession: Aston Villa 39 %; Everton 61 %

Everton crush Aston Villa – their first win over the team in their last 12 matches, and their first at Villa Park in seven years – behind first-half goals from Steven Pienaar, Maroane Fellaini and Nivica Jelavic. It was a horrendous performance from Villa, who see the optimism behind the appointment of new manager Paul Lambert rapidly diminishing – this team simply isn’t good enough to compete in the Premier League. Makes you long for the days where Everton were almost as good as us in the fight for European spots, doesn’t it? Karim El Ahmadi had a consolation goal for Villa, who actually were much better in the second half, but it really doesn’t matter. Everton will probably finish somewhere 5th-7th again this season, though I’d love to see them finish in a Champions League place. As for Villa, Lambert got his team selection wrong; they sorely missed the creativity of Stephen Ireland and Brett Holman, and the right-sided combination of Matt Lowton and Chris Herd was overrun, though in fairness, so was the rest of the team. Terrible.

Player Ratings

Shay Given, GK – 4; Tentative in goal. Arguably could’ve stopped either of the first two goals. Is it time to give Brad Guzan a start?

Nathan Baker, D – 6; Looked much more comfortable at left back, though he did let Jagielka get by for the second goal. More assured than Ciaran Clark in central defense once he replaced him.

Ron Vlaar, D – 6.5; Once again solid at the back. He looks composed on the ball too.

Ciaran Clark, D – 4.5; Outjumped for Fellaini’s header, sent off somewhat harshly for a professional foul in the second half. Needs to be better.

Matt Lowton, D – 5; Pienaar and Baines owned him on the left wing. Welcome to the Premier League, kid.

Karim El-Ahmadi, M – 6.5; Started off slowly and didn’t see much of the ball, but played better as the game wore on. He looks like a good signing, still.

Barry Bannan, M – 5; Performance will once again raise questions about whether he’s too lightweight for the Premier League. Brought little to the table.

Chris Herd, M – 5; Lambert’s decision to play him on the right raises the question of why he didn’t just start him at right back. Tried hard, but offered nothing going forward.

Charles N’Zogbia, M – 5; Probably leading the league in the most dribbles out of bounds. I feel like I say this every week, but at some point, he just needs to be dropped, no matter how much he cost or what he did before.

Nathan Delfouneso, M – 5; Another strange selection from Lambert. Probably not match-sharp, and certainly not an attacking midfielder. Replaced at halftime.

Darren Bent, F – 6; Once again, never got the ball, played no role. You have to wonder how long he’s going to want to stick around unless some decent players are signed.

Brett Holman, SUB – 6; Villa looked better with him on the pitch. Should be starting.

Eric Lichaj, SUB – 6; Brought energy off the bench. Probably will start on the left against Newcastle with Clark banned because of his red card.

Andreas Weimann, SUB – NR; Only on briefly; hit the post late on. Should be ahead of Delfouneso in the pecking order, you would think.

Grade: F. Though the performance late on with Holman, Lichaj and Weimann was better, overall, this was as bad – or worse – than any of the matches under Alex McLeish. In fact, I’d go so far as saying this is the worst I’ve EVER seen Villa play at home. Villa need four or five new signings, or they very well could be in the Championship next year. Suggestions for the next match: 1. Sign new players; 2. Start Guzan for Given; 3. Give Holman and Ireland back their starting spots; 4. Drop N’Zogbia; 5. Put Baker in the center of defense and see if he plays well enough to keep Clark out; 6. Start Lichaj either on the right or left; 7. Start Weimann instead of Delfouneso, or better yet, sign a striker

Match Report: West Ham 1, Aston Villa 0

Not a great start for Brett Holman (AVFC)

Goals: Nolan, 40 (Vaz Te, assist)

Shots: West Ham – 7 (1 on target); Aston Villa 13 (2)

Possession: West Ham – 34 %; Aston Villa – 66 %

The first match in the Paul Lambert era at Aston Villa and the first back in the Premiership for West Ham ends up being a pretty dull affair, with West Ham grabbing the three points thanks to a Kevin Nolan goal that was initially flagged for offsides. Aside from that goal, neither team really threatened to score. It was a bit of a weird alternate universe thing for Villa fans, who are usually accustomed to defending and looking for occasional counterattacking opportunities, but this time had the lion’s share of possession but couldn’t break down a well-organized West Ham defense. It remains to be seen whether Villa will be more of an attacking force against teams that play more open, expansive football, but on the evidence of this, they won’t unless the bring in a few more players.

Player Ratings

Shay Given, GK – 6; Didn’t have much to do except for the one goal, which wasn’t his fault

Nathan Baker, D – 6; Defended reasonably well, but didn’t offer any width at all in attack

Ron Vlaar, D – 8; Solid at the back. Even got a cut and bled everywhere, which is always a good sign for your central defender

Ciaran Clark, D – 7; Occasionally shaky, but didn’t do anything that led to a goal, which is good enough

Matt Lowton, D – 6; Showed less of the willingness to get forward than he did in preseason matches

Karim El-Ahmadi, M – 7; Combined well with Stephen Ireland, particularly in the first half, but had a few bad giveaways as well

Fabian Delph, M – 6.5; Looked a bit nervous initially, but had a couple uncharacteristic runs into the attacking half, which is a hopeful sign

Stephen Ireland, M – 7; Probably the most forward-thinking Villa player, but none of his through balls or shots came to anything

Charles N’Zogbia, M – 5.5; Another disappointing performance from N’Zogbia; you have to wonder how much longer he will start when he plays like this

Brett Holman, M – 5; Runs around a lot; unfortunately, looked more tentative than he had in preseason and put in a couple woeful crosses. Must be better.

Darren Bent, F – 6; Never got the ball, so it’s hard to give him a rating. Had one shot which was blocked. Needs better service. Same old story

Andreas Weimann, SUB – 6; Didn’t get the ball enough to do anything

Gary Gardner, SUB – 5.5; Didn’t impress when he had the ball

Barry Bannan, SUB – 6; Didn’t do much with the ball after coming on as a sub

Grade: C-. Opening day matches are always iffy – particularly in away games – but on the basis of this performance, Lambert has a lot to do to turn this team around, injuries or no. They passed the ball around well, but didn’t seem to have any idea what to do when West Ham was defending. Baker was fine defensively at left back, saving a certain goal late on, but offered nothing supporting the attack. N’Zogbia and Holman ran around a lot but offered zero penetration. Must be better.

Friendly: Philadelphia Union 0, Aston Villa 1

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer

Normally I’m bored by friendly matches, but since my team was playing this one, I thought it would be a good enough excuse to do a write-up. Villa opened their 3-match U.S. tour (the other matches being against the Chicago Fire and Portland Timbers) by playing the Union at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. I get the appeal of bringing European teams in for friendlies, but I imagine for the manager and some of the players, having to stop in the middle of the season to play a meaningless game against a team that will probably play reserves for half of the match has to be frustrating. But as the MLS continues to grow, we’ll see more of these. Anyway, on to the match.

Aston Villa’s lineup was made up mostly of players who will be expected to start, along with the odd wildcard (Nathan Delfouneso, Barry Bannan). They dominated the first half – particularly the first 20 minutes or so, and Delfouneso in particular had several chances to score he didn’t take. He ended up making up for it late in the first half, though, curling the ball into Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath’s top right corner after a layoff from new signing Brett Holman. In the second half, both teams made a flurry of changes, and the Union were probably the better team the last 25 minutes or so.

Overall, it wasn’t a particularly exciting game. Villa certainly looked like the better side for most of the match, though the Union had a couple players on the pitch who I don’t recall seeing in an MLS match. Villa will take heart in continued (after their preseason opening win over Burton Albion) strong play from new signings Holman, Karim El Ahmadi and Matt Lowton, and it seems like it has been ages since Delfouneso scored. It’s also nice to see Villa passing the ball around quickly after the drudgery of last season’s play under fired manager Alex McLeish. Next up is Chicago, who should provide much more of a test, at least depending on how many regulars get on the pitch for them. Philadelphia looked good in spots in this match, but you could tell they were struggling to keep up with the speed that Villa moved the ball around.

EPL: Who’s going to get relegated?

Image

Djibril Cisse ponders an ill-fated trip to the barber.

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer

The last month or so of the season in Europe makes for exciting watching, with a handful of teams competing for the big prize. The Championship? Nope, I’m talking about avoiding relegation. Most of the big leagues in Europe are monopolized by a few teams (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, yawn), so I’m going to focus on the real race: Who avoids getting relegated to the second division of English football. Here are the candidates:

15. Aston Villa (7-14-12, 35 points; 35 goals for, 48 against).
Still to play: Sunderland, Bolton, @West Brom, Tottenham Hotspur, @Norwich
Why they’re staying up: Villa are easily the biggest club of the six in trouble, having finished 6th as recently as 2010 (and four times in the last six years), being League Cup semifinalists in 2010 and qualifying for Europe three consecutive times in the last five years. With only the home match against Spurs one that you’d call a likely defeat, they should be able to pick up some points their final five matches. They have a 6-point cushion, and none of the other teams have been too good about picking up six points in four matches, hence their place in the relegation fight.
Why they’re going down: Manager Alex McLeish is an expert at getting teams relegated (See Birmingham in 2009, 2011). With Darren Bent out for the season, who is going to score goals? They’ve only won once in the last four months at home, rendering their three home matches moot. In the league, only Wigan and Stoke have scored less. This is one of the youngest squads in the league.
Our prediction: Sunderland (Draw), Bolton (Win), @West Brom (Draw), Tottenham Hotspur (Loss), @Norwich (Loss)

16. Queens Park Rangers (8-7-19, 31 points; 38 gf, 57 ga).
Still to play: Tottenham Hotspur, @Chelsea, Stoke City, @Manchester City
Why they’re staying up: Their current win, lose, win, lose form would surely be enough for them to finish out of the Bottom 3. Their squad features experienced players like Luke Young, Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora, surely enough for a team to stay up. Cisse is probably the best striker in the Bottom 6.
Why they’re going down: Players like Luke Young, Joey Barton and Bobby Zamora (not to mention Tommy Smith, Heidar Helguson, Rob Hulse, DJ Campbell, Anton Ferdinand and Dany Gabbidon) are also quite experienced at getting relegated. They still play three teams who will finish in European places, and Stoke played in the Europe League this year. Not easy.
Our prediction: Tottenham Hotspur (Loss), @Chelsea (Loss), Stoke City (Win), @Manchester City (Loss)

17. Wigan (7-10-16, 31 points; 31 gf, 57 ga).
Still to play: @Arsenal, @Fulham, Newcastle, @Blackburn Rovers, Wolverhampton Wanderers
Why they’re staying up: Wigan are practically the Manchester United of the relegation battle, narrowly avoiding dropping to the Championship four out of the last five seasons before pulling it out. After Villa, they are the best defensive team of the Bottom 6. With 10 points from their last five matches, they are certainly the hottest team of the Bottom 6.
Why they’re going down: They have to get relegated at some point, right? Their forward line of Connor Sammon, Franco DiSanto, Callum McManaman and Hugo Rodallega has combined for 6 goals in 72 matches, so it’s no surprise they’re the lowest-scoring team of the Bottom 6. They end the season with back-to-back matches against Blackburn and Wolves, making them the only team that has to play two “relegation six-pointers.”
Our prediction: @Arsenal (Loss), @Fulham (Draw), Newcastle (Loss), @Blackburn Rovers (Loss), Wolverhampton Wanderers (Win)

18. Bolton Wanderers (9-2-21, 29 points; 36 gf, 65 ga).
Still to play: Swansea, @Aston Villa, @Sunderland, Tottenham Hotspur, West Brom, @Stoke City
Why they’re staying up: With the exception of injury-ravaged Villa, Bolton probably have the best squad of any of the teams in the relegation fight. They also have the most matches remaining of any team. As with Villa, only the home match against Tottenham is one that could be considered a sure-fire loss. Arsenal loanee Ryo Myaichi could probably win matches all on his own for Bolton.
Why they’re going down: Yes, they have one of the best squads, but three of their best players, Stu Holden, Fabrice Muamba and Lee Chung-Yong, are out for the season. Relying on players like Kevin Davies and Tuncay Sanli is great for leadership (combined age: 68), but not so much for scoring (combined goals: 3). Their current midfield four of Chris Eagles, Martin Petrov, Darren Pratley and Nigel Reo-Coker strikes fear into the hearts of no one. Ten different players have played at least one match in defense for this team.
Our prediction: Swansea (Draw), @Aston Villa (Loss), @Sunderland (Loss), Tottenham Hotspur (Loss), West Brom (Draw), @Stoke City (Loss)

19. Blackburn Rovers (7-7-20, 28 points; 45 gf, 73 ga).
Still to play: Norwich, @Tottenham Hotspur, Wigan, @Chelsea
Why they’re staying up: Rovers are the top-scoring of the six teams. Paul Robinson is an experienced goalkeeper. Junior Hoilett is one of the most exciting young players in the league. Yakubu has 16 goals – to stay up, you need a scorer. With a home match against Wigan, to an extent you can say they’re in control of their fate.
Why they’re going down: Blackburn have lost five in a row, never a good way to warm up to the home stretch. They’re also the worst defensive team in the league. They close the season at Chelsea, who will probably need to win to have hopes of finishing in the Top 4.
Our prediction: Norwich (Draw), @Tottenham Hotspur (Loss), Wigan (Win), @Chelsea (Loss)

20. Wolverhampton Wanderers (5-8-21, 23 points; 34 gf, 73 ga).
Still to play: Manchester City, @Swansea, Everton, @Wigan
Why they’re staying up: Because it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
Why they’re going down: Eight points clear of safety, Wolves could potentially win their last four and still get relegated. And they’re not going to beat Manchester City next week. Or Everton in three weeks.
Our prediction: Manchester City (Loss), @Swansea (Loss), Everton (Draw), @Wigan (Loss)

Final OLS table
15. Aston Villa – 8-16-14, 40 points
16. Wigan – 8-11-19, 35 points
17. QPR – 9-7-22, 34 points
18. Blackburn – 8-8-22, 32 points
19. Bolton – 9-4-25, 31 points
20. Wolverhampton – 5-9-24, 24 points

Aston Villa to do 3-match U.S. tour in July

I sure hope posting this photo on the web doesn't ruin its resale value

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer

Aston Villa, who are terrible again this year, but it’s worth noting have won the English league, Champions League and FA Cup more than Chelsea, are doing a three-match tour of the MLS ballparks in July. They open against the Union in Philadelphia on July 18, play the Chicago Fire on July 21, and close the tour with a match against the Timbers in Portland on July 24.

I’m all for a tour of the U.S. by Villa, though they never seem to play anywhere I can get to. The optimist in me is hoping that the team will be buoyed by the recent jettisoning of dead wood like Emile Heskey (1 goal in 2012 – yes, he’s a striker), Richard Dunne and Stephen Warnock and a healthy influx of new players, though I’ll probably be disappointed in that end.

At any rate, I hope those of you in those cities get a chance to attend the matches.

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