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Premier League Team of the Week

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The Barclays Premier League has returned to our screens again this weekend – thank goodness – and we were instantly reminded of the reasons why it is so loved. Shocks, high drama, incidents to debate during the days to come were plentiful, but who were the players that impressed the most over Saturday and Sunday?

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Sergio Romero: In the media storm surrounding Van Gaal’s decision to leave David De Gea out of the side, Sergio Romero applied himself excellently in the curtain raiser to the 2015/16 Premier League campaign. Settling well into his new surroundings in the first half, he pulled off decent stops against Eriksen and Walker before raising his level further to secure all three points for The Red Devils in the latter stages of the game. Keeping out Spurs’ Danish international twice in quick succession and also Harry Kane in the last ten minutes has gone some way to filling United fans with the belief that Romero can fill the unsettled Spaniard’s boots if necessary.

Matteo Darmian: Most notably for the Italian, he was clearly a defensively sound option at right-back, something that Manchester United have not had in abundance for many a year. While Valencia; a nominal right-sided midfielder, filled in more than adequately in the position last season, Darmian is certainly an upgrade on the former Wigan man and looks like he will add another dimension on The Red Devils’ flank this season.

As the most impressive of the outfield debutants on show at Old Trafford in my opinion, the Italian proved to be proficient at both making interceptions and tackles in dangerous areas; five before he left the field after 80 minutes, and rampaging forward to deliver tempting crosses into the opposition’s area. Louis Van Gaal praised Darmian in particular, stating that he was “the best player” for United on early Saturday afternoon, not only “in possession but also when the opponent has the ball. He was very good”.

Micah Richards: Although he is a summer addition to this new-look Aston Villa side, Tim Sherwood has appointed him as the captain and if Richards’ display against Bournemouth is anything to go by, it is easy to see why. A natural leader and never afraid to be vocal, the former Manchester City defender commanded his troops to perfection, encouraging greater effort from them whilst also putting forward a fine example himself. Seven successful clearances and three completed tackles reinforce this suggestion, but his overall impression on the match was clear to see.

A frequently shaky Aston Villa defence last year was transformed into a much more stable affair when posed with the threat of flyers Matt Ritchie and Callum Wilson. Micah Richards has spent years away from the true limelight of Premier League football; whether on the substitutes’ bench or on foreign soil, but it would have seemed to many as if he had never been away.

Last-ditch. Micah Richards threw himself into challenges on a winning return to life in the Premier League.

Imposing. Micah Richards threw himself into challenges during a winning return to life in the Premier League.

Winston Reid: West Ham’s reliable central defender produced three last-ditch clearances deep inside his own penalty area in the vital closing minutes of The Iron’s 2-0 victory as Arsenal piled on the pressure. He marshalled the defence which was lacking a degree of mobility in the form of the ineligible Jenkinson whilst facing possibly the most technically astute opposition that the league has to offer. On more than one occasion, the New Zealand international took the decision away from his goalkeeper and intercepted balls approaching his goal, not taking a chance.

Despite the busy nature of The Hammers’ summer transfer dealings; securing the signatures of ten new players to date, it could well prove to be the case that holding down Winston Reid to a new long-term deal in March of last season will be the most crucial piece of business done in recent times.

Marc Muniesa: As one of the ever-increasing of former Barcelona players now plying their trade for Mark Hughes at Stoke City, Marc Muniesa put in an impressive performance against Liverpool on Sunday. In the absence of the always aggressive Ryan Shawcross, the Spanish defender took up the challenge of marking Benteke and although the Belgian certainly won his fair share of aerial duels, Muniesa marshalled him well.

He also demonstrated his versatility when filling in at left-back in the second half due to an injury to Erik Pieters. In this role, the tricky and pacey Jordon Ibe was the primary danger, with whom Muniesa dealt admirably. The two Liverpool players presented very different threats but neither were able to get the better of the Stoke City defender.

Cheikhou Kouyaté: The scorer of West Ham’s opening goal just before the interval, Cheikhou Kouyaté may have set his side on the path to a memorable victory in North London, but it was his overall contribution which impressed me the most. A physically imposing figure in the centre of West Ham’s midfield, the Senegalese powerhouse broke up many an Arsenal attack and while his destructive tendencies were perhaps the most important aspect, he did not lack a creative edge. Forming a promising early bond with starlet Reece Oxford, Kouyaté helped to guide him through the game whilst also linking up successfully with team-mates in attacking areas. It was almost the complete performance from a midfielder.

Reece Oxford: In what will most likely be considered as the most eye-opening performance of the weekend, 16 year old Reece Oxford dazzled onlookers with his incredible maturity and confidence in the notoriously tough cauldron that is Premier League football. Having played a role in West Ham United’s clashes in the Europa League up to this point, Oxford was again deployed in a deep-lying midfield role by Bilic despite his rise through the ranks as a centre half. He showed no signs at all of a different role fazing him and stood up to some of the most highly regarded midfielders that the top flight has to offer.

On the ball, Oxford looked calm at all times, happy to receive it under pressure. Boasting a 95% pass completion rate; the highest of any player on the pitch, is quite some figure for one so young. He also drew praise as a result of his mobility and physical presence on the field, let alone an apparent natural ability to lead. The image of him ordering team-mates into position and gesticulating with arms held aloft is one that certainly amazed me at least.

Andre Ayew: Swansea City’s Ghanaian addition made a healthy first impression on Premier League supporters with his display against last season’s champions. As favourites going into this campaign too, Chelsea were expected to achieve a relatively easy victory over the Welsh outfit but; due in no small part to Ayew’s efforts on the right of the attack, they could only obtain one point from the match-up.

The former Marseille attacker was surprisingly strong and aggressive from the outset, frequently leaving stars such as Nemanja Matic sprawling on the floor after a failed attempt to win possession. Ayew already seems to have built up a strong bond with his fellow Swansea players, joining in well with intricate attacking moves. The intelligent drag-back to outwit a floundering John Terry followed by a deft finish into the far corner to open the scoring on Saturday evening sent Swansea fans into delirium and if Ayew can match the levels he achieved here, onlookers at The Liberty Stadium could be on for a season to remember.

Fast starter. Andre Ayew impressed with a bustling display against Chelsea and bagged a smartly taken first goal for Swansea.

Fast starter. Andre Ayew impressed with a bustling display against Chelsea and bagged a smartly taken first goal for Swansea.

Riyad Mahrez: As Leicester City flew out of the traps in their latest Premier League campaign, the performance of Riyad Mahrez was perhaps the defining factor. A reliable end product is what had been lacking from his game in my view and was something that needed addressing in order to transform the Algerian from a luxury player to a potential world-beater. Continuing in a vastly improved vein of form from the tail end of last season, Mahrez grabbed two goals on the way to a 4-2 victory over Sunderland.

His first strike was a neatly finished header from a teasing Albrighton cross but the second was all his own work. Dazzling trickery on the ball; a quality which he has always had possession of, drew Lee Cattermole into a wild challenge in the 18 yard box and the left-footer dispatched the resultant spot-kick himself. Mahrez could easily have secured his first Premier League hat-trick later in the game to crown the display, but he could only be denied by the base of Pantilimon’s far post. The Foxes’ supporters must hope that this sort of application and commitment on Mahrez’s behalf is not just a flash in the pan and he can go on to put in many more performances of this nature.

Jefferson Montero: Branislav Ivanovic has been on the top of his game at right-back for as many years as I can remember, so it goes to show how well Montero played for Swansea that the Serbian looked distinctly amateur against him. The Ecuadorian ran him ragged seemingly on every occasion down Swansea’s left flank, leading to one of Ivanovic’s most torrid days in Chelsea blue. In a refreshing manner, Jefferson Montero always seemed to have one sole objective in mind when picking up the ball; attack his opponent and place the defenders firmly on the back foot.

Beating potential tacklers on either side, Montero was just as capable of taking the ball to the by-line to produce a cross for Gomis as he was of cutting infield and threatening Chelsea’s goal directly. He certainly looked to be capable of a more consistent threat than either of Eden Hazard or Willian for Mourinho’s side and his early withdrawal from proceedings marked a resurgence from The Blues. Leaving the field for cramp, Montero’s replacement; Wayne Routledge, was not able to push Chelsea back anywhere near as effectively as the Ecuadorian, which in turn helped to heap pressure onto the Swans. If he continues to dribble with this quality; producing a marvellous six successful take-ons in 71 minutes, the Welsh side have a real asset up their sleeves.

Diafra Sakho: When Enner Valencia suffered a crippling injury in a recent Europa League tie, Hammers fans could have been forgiven for wondering how badly he would be missed up front. If Diafra Sakho’s display against Arsenal is anything to go by, then Valencia’s absence will barely be noticed. After a fabulous debut season in the Premier League, Sakho continued where he left off at the Emirates Stadium and occupied the entire Arsenal back-line from the first minute.

Providing a fine platform for West Ham’s supporting players to operate from, the Senegalese forward ran his socks off and never permitted the opposition defenders a moment’s peace. As a result of the constant threat in behind combined with Mertesacker’s notorious susceptibility to pace in behind, Arsenal had to sit deeper than they would have liked and this allowed West Ham defenders with some vital respite especially when their goal was under siege for the last 20 minutes or so.


Do you agree with the selection of the Team of the Week for the opening set of Premier League fixtures? Who would you include instead and do you see the form continuing for these stars? Let us know in the comments or on twitter @TBRFootball .

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I am currently at university studying Mechanical Engineering, but in my spare time I'm into all things football. I'm an avid Liverpool fan but always try to remain impartial. My other interests include gaming and Formula One.

Aston Villa

Can Aston Villa and Steve Bruce afford to blow their big opportunity?

After a difficult start to life in the Championship, Aston Villa are now in a favourable position to secure a return to the Premier League under Steve Bruce, writes columnist Jake Jackman.

Jake Jackman

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Villa
Photo: Reuters

Aston Villa have climbed up the Championship table and, after a run of six consecutive victories, should now be considered serious promotion contenders.

The Midlands club have struggled since being relegated from the Premier League and it has taken them some time to adjust to the second tier, but they are now emerging as one of the best teams in the division.

The club’s critics will point to the amount of money that has been spent since arriving in the second tier, but, in truth, the squad needed a complete overhaul and the Villains are now benefitting from that.

They are currently third in the division, but they trail Derby County by only one point and will be confident that they can move ahead of Gary Rowett’s side.

Villa are building momentum at the right time and no team will relish the prospect of playing against Steve Bruce’s men.

The manager is a major reason why the club have to be considered as favourites to clinch the second automatic promotion place, as he has a proven track record of getting teams over the line.

He has won promotion to the Premier League on four occasions and that will stand him in good stead to achieve a similar feat at Villa Park.

A quick look at the squad that faced Burton Albion shows the quality and experience that Bruce currently has at his disposal.

John Terry is a winner and after a slow start to life as a Championship player, he has found his stride. His leadership will be crucial over the coming months.

Ahmed El Mohamady, James Chester, Alan Hutton, Robert Snodgrass, Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak have all achieved success in the Premier League, which makes them great players to have when challenging for promotion.

Meanwhile, Jack Grealish, Josh Onomah and Keinan Davis have the ability to inject flair and energy into any performance.

It has been a period of recovery for Aston Villa, but they are now coming out fighting and the supporters have a team they can believe in again.

At the tail end of the Championship standings, there are examples of what can happen if the team isn’t run correctly after relegation.

Sunderland are second bottom and have only won five times in 30 league matches. Meanwhile, Hull City are just one place above them in the table.

Both clubs could face back-to-back relegations and, considering the supposed financial advantage they should hold over the rest of the league, their struggles are indicative of poor leadership from the top.

Although Tony Xia has caused problems for Aston Villa since taking over as the owner of the football club, namely through his Twitter feed, he has stabilised the club and provided the finances needed to build a team that can compete in the Championship.

The Chinese businessman made headlines when he bought the club,  speaking of his desire to win the Champions League within ten seasons, as evidenced by the following quotes from the Telegraph:

“We don’t have a very detailed plan but we have a vision that we will challenge to get back into the Premier League and we will be challenging when we get back.

”The aim, not just the hope, is to get back in the European field within five years and I wish we can succeed to get another trophy like we have here in eight or 10 years. That is not an exact number, but we want to win the European Cup.

“It is really important to get promoted in the first season as everybody hopes but all we can do is do our best.”

There is nothing wrong with ambition and, as Leicester City showed when they won the Premier League in 2016, the impossible remains possible in football.

However, coming in as a new owner of a club that had just been embarrassed in the Premier League, it wasn’t the right time to speak about achieving success in Europe.

First and foremost, he had to sort out the mess that he had inherited.

He initially appointed Roberto di Matteo and that turned out to be a poor move.

The Italian had previously won promotion with West Brom and the Champions League with Chelsea, but he wasn’t the appointment that the club needed.

Villa required a manager who had the experience of winning promotion and building a squad capable of achieving it, from scratch.

Di Matteo didn’t stay in the position long. Villa were struggling in 19th position after just 11 league matches, with only one win to their name.

Xia made the decision to relieve the Italian of his duties and started a managerial search from scratch.

The appointment that followed showed how much the Chinese businessman had learned from his short time in football, as Steve Bruce came in.

The Geordie was exactly what the club needed and the patience shown by the board underlines the faith they have in him.

The first season after relegation was a tough one. Villa were humbled and finished a lowly 13th. However, Xia didn’t panic and he deserves credit for that.

Compared to the actions of some owners in recent years, the Chinese businessman doesn’t come across as too volatile, despite what his social media profile would have you believe.

Steve Bruce’s recruitment since has been very shrewd. He has brought in players that are proven in the Championship, alongside those with a sprinkling of Premier League class.

Robert Snodgrass would fit into both categories, while the likes of Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane know what is required to succeed in the lower leagues.

During January, Villa were keen to add to their ranks to maintain their positive momentum and their signing of Lewis Grabban looks to be a masterstroke.

The striker scored 12 times during the first half of the season with Sunderland, in a team that was struggling badly. His reputation soared and he will provide another source of goals for the promotion-chasing side.

The next few months will be defining for Aston Villa. Their need for promotion is greater than other clubs competing at the top of the Championship due to their wage bill and stature.

A club the size of the Midlands outfit can’t afford to be outside of the Premier League for too long, especially if they want to continue growing.

The finances on offer in the top-flight are huge and the longer the club are missing out on that, the greater the gap will become.

They are in a strong position with a proven manager and talented playing staff. It is now up to them to take that final step and return to the level where they belong.

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Aston Villa

Why the FA Cup weekend provides a big opportunity for Aston Villa

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Aston Villa
Photo: Reuters

It was the best of times. It was the worst of the times. It was panic mode. It was ‘don’t worry’. It was December. A month, for Aston Villa, that does not bring many gifts.

In the twelfth month of the year, it is usually the time of the football season where you can expect Villa’s hopes to collapse. Of course, the club have ironically lead league tables before November eroded into December. After Christmas the club is usually lucky to have a hand on the top half of the table!

And again, that’s almost how it went for Aston Villa in 2017. A blown two goal lead, a draw, a defeat and another loss. Steve Bruce’s reign at Villa has been defined by streaks. A stint of winning, coldly sandwiched between two barren spells.

After a Boxing Day bashing by promising coach Dean Smith and his plucky Brentford side the tide seemed to be turning against Steve Bruce for the final time. Booed off rather viciously by an angry pack of away fans at Griffin Park, the 57-year-old head coach was quick to defend himself.

He was even quicker to do so when he escaped Middlesbrough with three points a few days after, and by the dawn of the new year – after taking six points against two very good sides, including a resounding 5-0 win against Bristol City – he was more than happy to take the plaudits.

Now, after a barrage of cold surf, Villa’s manager now seems to be riding a waves of optimism into 2018.

Villa’s first match post New Year’s Day is a FA Cup 3rd round tie against League One outfit Peterborough United. These matches are usually dismissed by those who are too quick to get down to the business of the league.

However, while the FA Cup might not offer glory, it certainly offers opportunity to teams like Aston Villa, who would do well not to turn their nose up at England’s oldest club football competition.

The FA Cup? For Villa, it’s an opportunity for rebirth. It is not a throwaway fixture at Villa Park in any sense of the world. Why? It allows the team to experiment, rotate and try out new things that they may be too scared to implement in a league fixture.

It also allows them to give extremely talented youngsters like Jake Doyle-Hayes, Easah Suliman and Callum O’Hare some valuable first-team game time. What is more, it allows an erratic side to settle into form, with a big chance for a win on offer.

Scott Hogan will likely be allowed a full ninety minutes of football to continue his decent spell, and a few goals will do nothing but help him along.

Among other things, it also gives Villa a look at a decent League One side. Many clubs are chasing Jack Marriott, who leads the line for the Posh. Seeing a ready-made replacement for any departing striker can do the Bruce’s team no harm. Well, as long as he doesn’t bang a few goals past Jed Steer.

The flip side of this? It is also a good way for the Birmingham side to put second-stringers and reserve players in a shop window. Especially considering it is very much a ‘sell-to-buy’ situation for the club this January.

Villa and Steve Bruce would be wise to pay close attention to Saturday’s fixture, as it represents a massive chance for this side to grow and really galvanise their season.

It has been a stop-start campaign so far and a good win against a talented Peterborough side in the FA Cup certainly won’t hurt Villa. In truth, it could be a really good opportunity to learn a lot more about Bruce’s current squad.

Villa won’t win the FA Cup, but a good run will only boost their season. Ignoring fixture congestion and other intangibles of which we cannot measure the impact, any match where a loss is not of huge detriment can only help one of the Championship’s most exciting, talented and erratic teams grow.

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Aston Villa

Exclusive: Aston Villa’s Conor Hourihane on his creative prowess and the Villans’ season ahead

Jake Jackman

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Conor Hourihane

Aston Villa have had a challenging start to the season and are in 10th position after eight matches. This is three places higher than the position they finished in during the 2016/17 campaign and supporters have grown frustrated at the club’s inability to establish themselves at the top of the division. However, their struggles underline how difficult the Championship can be. Reputations mean nothing and it won’t be easy for the Villans to return to the Premier League.

The squad upheaval hasn’t helped, as they have signed 22 players since relegation. The individuals that have been brought in won’t all be seen as good deals for the club, but Conor Hourihane is one that Steve Bruce will look to build the team around this season.

In a period of transition, it took time for the midfielder to earn himself a regular starting place. He has managed to do that now after a good start to the season in front of goal. The 26-year-old has five in the league, which included an excellent hat-trick against Norwich City. He revealed his delight at his own start of the season, before moving on to address the club’s results to date:

“Yes, it was great, a great feeling. It was my first hat-trick. “

“They have been up and down, we’re starting to find our feet a little bit now and are unbeaten in a few games, we’ve had a few draws in a row that could have gone either way but overall it’s been an average start.”

It is clear that the players understand the frustration of the supporters, but the four draws could have gone Villa’s way and if they had done, they would be in a healthier position now. The Championship is a tight league, which is why Hourihane is a key player for Steve Bruce’s side. He can unlock defences and win points for his team, as he has proven on a consistent basis since arriving in the Championship.

Last season, he finished top of assists in the Championship with 14 spread across his time at Barnsley and Aston Villa. He created a chance every 41.3 minutes throughout the campaign, but Hourihane was keen to stress that he is a complete midfielder, rather than one that focuses on attacking contribution:

“I suppose that’s what the stats show but for me I’d like to think I’m a bit of an all-rounder who can do bits of everything. Last year it went well for myself from that point of view but I think if I don’t get as many assists but we are playing well as a team and up there at the top of the league I will take that any day of the week.”

It is refreshing to hear that Hourihane isn’t letting last season’s personal success affect his aims for the coming season. Aston Villa need to develop a strong mentality if they are to challenge for promotion, with the team needs going before that of any individual. If the Villans can return to the Premier League this season, it would be a far more enjoyable achievement for the midfielder.

There were many reasons why Aston Villa were relegated and it was a result of a decline across a number of seasons. The recruitment policy didn’t help. In the summer of 2015, the majority of signings came from Ligue 1 and the club no longer had a British core. Their motives may have been more self-oriented, which is why the above comments from Hourihane are very encouraging. The team is beginning to become one that supporters can connect with and they should be a lot tougher as well. This is a trait every promotion-winning team needs to have.

Barnsley were the surprise package of the Championship last season and Hourihane’s performances for them were the reason why Aston Villa wanted to bring him in. During the first half of the season, he contributed six goals and 11 assists.

There wasn’t a shortage of interest in his services during the January window, with Sheffield Wednesday being heavily linked. However, it was Villa that won the race and their ambition played a key role in persuading the midfielder to make the switch. When asked what attracted him to the Midlands, he responded:

“The size of the club, the history and the where the club wants to take itself.”

It isn’t surprising that Aston Villa were an attractive club for Hourihane. The 26-year-old has had to work his way up from the lower leagues and will see his current club as his best chance of completing the journey into the top-flight.

Every good football career starts off with a failure and Hourihane’s is no different. The midfielder failed to make a first-team appearance for either of his first two clubs, Sunderland and Ipswich Town. That will have been a huge blow for the player at an early stage of his career, but he showed an impressive mentality to go down the leagues and forge a career on his own terms.

At Home Park, he improved year-on-year and his final season with the club saw him score nine times. A move to Barnsley followed and it was in Yorkshire that he made a name for himself, as he was a regular scorer with 23 across two seasons in League One. In his final full season with the Tykes, he was an integral figure as they won the Football League Trophy and gained promotion through the play-offs. Hourihane believes that his career to date has prepared him well for Aston Villa:

“It’s probably given me a different education to the lads that are here, a lot of them started off higher and have found themselves at Aston Villa and I’ve started off lower and ended up at Aston Villa right now and myself and the players have met in the middle and hopefully that would be a good mixture to take us up the table and ultimately where we want to be and get promoted.”

The make-up of the Aston Villa squad is a point of interest, as they have players like Hourihane with no top-flight experience playing alongside a Champions League winner in John Terry. In the Championship, the experience and know-how possessed by the midfielder is equally, if not more, important than that of the former England captain.

The 26-year-old’s main focus will be helping Aston Villa return to the Premier League, but he also wants to establish himself in the Republic of Ireland team. He has been capped eight times and that has certainly whet his appetite for more in the future.

Yes, I’m hoping so, I’ve been involved in a few squads now for the last six months, made another appearance recently so hopefully if I keep playing well for Aston Villa that will only benefit my international career.”

The next few weeks are crucial for Aston Villa as they try to make up ground on the leading pack. They have matches against Burton Albion and Bolton Wanderers coming up in the next two. No match is easy in this division, but Steve Bruce will be looking to take six points.

It is early in the season, but Hourihane is the team’s current top-scorer. Although he is unlikely to finish the campaign with the most goals, the 26-year-old will be key to their promotion chances.

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