ON THE PITCH

Soccer recap: Manchester City win Carabao Cup; Neymar sidelined by ankle injury

Alberth Elis and the Dynamo open the season Saturday; Elis joins Glenn Davis tonight on Soccer Matters at the Gorgeous Gael. Photo by Wilf Thorne/Houston Dynamo

The first legs of the Champions League Round of 16 have taken place and in some cases, giving us a good idea of who could be moving on to the quarterfinals. The Europa League round of 32 have been decided. On this side of the world, international soccer has also kicked off in full swing. Also, the next Major League Soccer season starts this weekend. To catch you up, here is the recap:

UEFA Champions League

FC Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester City had blowout wins of at least four goals, meaning only a disaster in their Round of 16 second legs could undo them. Real Madrid with a 3-1 over PSG, and Shakhtar Donetsk, who won 2-1 over Roma, used their home to build an advantage and depend on good road trips to close out their ticket to the quarterfinals.

Three matches ended in draws: Juventus-Tottenham 2-2, Chelsea-FC Barcelona 1-1 and Sevilla-Manchester United 0-0. Of these stalemates, Juventus will be lamenting not putting Spurs away after a 2-0 home lead. The Bianconeri let their adversaries claw back in to a match that should’ve ended in a blowout for the home team. The other two were as close as the scoreline said, though Chelsea could have led 3-1 if Willian’s shots had been just a tad inside the poles.

No Champions League this week; the round of 16 resumes the following week.

UEFA Europa League

The Europa League round of 32 took place over the last two weeks, leaving 16 sides eliminated from Europe’s secondary international club competition. A.C. Milan, Atletico Madrid, Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Lyon and Marseille - traditional European clubs - are all through as expected. The surprise exit came from Napoli, current leaders in Serie A, who could not undo a 3-1 first leg loss at home to RB Leipzig.

The round of 16 begins next week with the following matchups: Atletico Madrid vs. Lokomotiv Moscow, Dortmund vs. Red Bull Salzburg, A.C. Milan vs. Arsenal, CSKA Lyon vs. Lyon, RB Leipzig vs. Zenit, Lazio vs. Dynamo Kyiv, Marseille vs. Athletic Bilbao and Sporting CP vs. Plzeň.

English Premier League

The Premier League returned after taking a break because of the FA Cup fifth round. Leicester and Stoke City tied, placing both at four matches removed from their last win. Bournemouth-Newcastle (2-2) and Burnley-Southampton (1-1) were the other draws this weekend. Huddersfield got a 2-1 win at West Brom, Liverpool won 4-1 over West Ham, Brighton 4-1 over Swansea City, Watford 1-0 over Everton and Tottenham 1-0 at Crystal Palace. All eyes this weekend, of course, were on Manchester United vs. Chelsea. It was the Red Devils who triumphed 2-1 over the Blues, knocking Chelsea out of the top four.

Arsenal and Manchester City did not take part in PL action this week because they met at Wembley to play the Football League Cup Final. City won their first trophy of the season with an emphatic 3-0 win over the Gunners. The “Carabao Cup” serves as a consolation for City’s elimination from the FA Cup earlier in the week to Wigan Athletic. Man City and Arsenal meet again on Thursday in premier league action.

Top 5: Manchester City (72), Manchester United (59), Liverpool (57), Tottenham (55), Chelsea (53)

La Liga

Girona led FC Barcelona after three minutes of play - and then Barca showcased their power in a 6-1 thrashing of their Catalan neighbors. Suarez scored a hat-trick, Messi scored a brace and Coutinho scored a goal that many will envy. Over in the Andalusia region of Spain, Atletico Madrid dismantled Sevilla 5-2 to continue eight points behind the leaders. Real Madrid meanwhile continue their recovery from a bad spell, following their jump to third place with a 4-0 win over Alaves. Bilbao, Celta Vigo, Real Betis, Valencia and Villarreal also picked up three points.

Top 5: FC Barcelona (65), Atletico Madrid (58), Real Madrid (51), Valencia (49), Villarreal (41)

Bundesliga

Deshaun Watson was present as Bayern Munich battled Hertha Berlin to a scoreless draw at the Allianz Arena. Of course, it matters little as FCB continues their stranglehold at the top with a cool 19-point lead over second place - and rivals - Dortmund. Speaking of which, Marco Reus scored in Dortmund’s 1-1 home draw with Augsburg. The biggest move was made by Schalke 04, up to third place with a 2-0 win at Bayer Leverkusen.

Top 5: Bayern Munich (60),  Borussia Dortmund (41), Schalke 04 (40), Eintracht Frankfurt (39), Bayer Leverkusen (38)

Ligue 1

Having the league all but officially secured, PSG suffered a huge loss in their 3-0 win over Marseille. Neymar was stretched off the field in tears after an ankle injury in the final minutes of Le Classique. He is expected to be out of next week’s Champions League match against Real Madrid. Monaco and Lyon both picked up draws this week as did Montpellier, whose draw catapults into the top five.

Top 5: Paris Saint-Germain (71), Monaco (57), Marseille (55), Lyon (49), Montpellier (39)

Serie A

With their elimination from international competition, leaders Napoli now only have the league title and the Coppa Italia to worry about. Gli Azzurri showed their dominance in a 5-0 win at Cagliari. A.C. Milan picked up a 2-0 win over Roma, Lazio a 3-0 win over Sassuolo and Inter Milan a 2-0 win over Benevento. Bologna, SPAL, Hellas Verona, Sampdoria and Florentina were also victorious. Juventus vs. Atalanta was postponed due to a snow storm.

Top 5: Napoli (66), Juventus (65), Lazio (52), Inter Milan (51), Roma (50)

CONCACAF Champions League

The 2018 edition of North America’s international club tournament kicked off with the round of 16 stage last Tuesday. The only win for an MLS side came at the expense of another as Toronto FC picked up a 2-0 win at the Colorado Rapids in the coldest match in CONCACAF Champions League history. Herediano meanwhile came back to draw 2-2 at home with Tigres UANL. Panamanian side Tauro picked up a 1-0 win over FC Dallas, while Club America left Costa Rica with a 5-1 victory over Saprissa. Tijuana and Guadalajara won their opening legs while Salvadoran side Santa Tecla came back to win 2-1 at home vs. Seattle Sounders FC and Olimpia drew with NY Red Bulls. It’s important to note that, due to the political unrest in Honduras, Motagua hosted Tijuana in Edinburg, TX while Olimpia hosted the Red Bulls in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Major League Soccer

The 2018 MLS season has arrived as clubs wrapped up their preseason friendlies over the weekend. The Houston Dynamo will host Atlanta United on Saturday afternoon in a nationally televised match on Univision. Toronto is the odds on favorite to repeat as champion.

Soccer Matters with Glenn Davis will broadcast live on ESPN 97.5 FM (Tuesday, 7-9 p.m) from The Gorgeous Gael (5555 Morningside Dr, Houston, TX) as Houston Dynamo’s Alberth Elis will be on the program.

Liga MX

Monterrey got back to winning with a 1-0 result at Atlas - catapulting them back to the top three. Toluca, Lobos BUAP, Tigres, Pachuca and Santos were all victorious while the draws this weekend were Puebla-Necaxa 1-1, Club America-Tijuana nil-nil and Pumas UNAM-Guadalajara 1-1. Landon Donovan did make his second Liga MX appearance for Leon, playing the final 10 minutes in the 2-1 loss at Pachuca.

Top 5: Club America (17), Santos Laguna (17), Monterrey (15), Toluca (15), Pumas UNAM (15)

Copa Libertadores

South America’s premier international club competition kicks off it’s group stage this week as the qualification stage ended last week. Among the top names in this year’s edition are Argentina giants Boca Juniors and River Plate, Brazil’s Corinthians and Santos and Colombia’s Atletico Nacional.

She Believes Cup

Four of the top powers in Women’s international soccer square off as the United States hosts England, France and Germany in the 2018 edition of the SheBelieves Cup. The round-robin tournament will be hosted in Columbus, Ohio, Harrison, New Jersey and Orlando, Florida over the course of a week. Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly joins England as an injury replacement and will face off against teammates Jane Campbell and Christen Press.

Upcoming matches (All Times CT):

Tuesday, Feb. 27:

10:30 a.m. - [Coppa Italia] Juventus vs. Atalanta (GolTV)

1 p.m. - [La Liga] Espanyol vs. Real Madrid (beIN SPORTS)

1:45 p.m. - [Coppa Italia] Lazio vs. A.C. Milan (GolTV)

1:45 p.m. - [FA Cup] Swansea vs. Sheffield Wednesday (FS2)

6:30 p.m. - [Copa Libertadores] Colo Colo vs. Atletico Nacional (FOX Deportes)

7 p.m. - [CONCACAF Champions League] Toronto FC vs. Colorado Rapids (go90)

7 p.m. - [CONCACAF Champions League] Tigres UANL vs. Herediano (Univision Deportes)

Wednesday, Feb. 28:

2 p.m. - [FA Cup] Tottenham vs. Rochdale (FS1)

6:30 p.m. - [Copa Libertadores] Flamengo vs. River Plate (FOX Deportes)

7 p.m. - [CONCACAF Champions League] FC Dallas vs. Tauro (go90)

9 p.m. - [Copa Libertadores] Millonarios vs. Corinthians (FOX Deportes)

Thursday, March 1:

1 p.m. - [La Liga] Las Palmas vs. Barcelona (beIN SPORTS)

1:45 p.m. - [Premier League] Arsenal vs. Manchester City (NBC SPORTS)

6:30 p.m. - [Copa Libertadores] Alianza Lima vs. Boca Juniors (FOX Deportes)

7 p.m. - [CONCACAF Champions League] New York Red Bulls vs. Olimpia (go90/Univision Deportes)

9 p.m. - [CONCACAF Champions League] Seattle Sounders FC vs. Santa Tecla FC (go90/Univision Deportes)

Friday, March 2:

1:30 p.m. - [Bundesliga] Moenchengladbach vs. Werder Bremen (FS2)

Saturday, March 3:

6:30 a.m. - [Premier League] Burnley vs. Everton (NBC Sports)

8:30 a.m. - [Bundesliga] Schalke 04 vs. Hertha Berlin (FS1)

8:30 a.m. - [Bundesliga] Wolfsburg vs. Bayer Leverkusen (FS2)

9 a.m. - [Premier League] Tottenham vs. Huddersfield (NBC Sports)

11 a.m. - [Serie A] Lazio vs. Juventus (beIN Sports)

11:30 a.m. - [Premier League] Liverpool vs. Newcastle (NBC Sports)

11:30 a.m. - [Bundesliga] RB Leipzig vs. Dortmund (FS2)

1:45 p.m. - [La Liga] Real Madrid vs. Getafe (beIN SPORTS)

2:30 p.m. - [MLS] Houston Dynamo vs. Atlanta United (Univision)

6:30 p.m. - [Liga MX] Club Leon vs. Pumas (ESPN Deportes)

Sunday, March 4:

7:30 a.m. - [Premier League] Brighton vs. Arsenal (NBC Sports)

8:30 a.m. - [Bundesliga] FC Koln vs. Stuttgart (FS1)

9:15 a.m. - [La Liga] FC Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid (beIN SPORTS)

10 a.m. - [Premier League] Manchester City vs. Chelsea (NBC Sports)

11 a.m. - [Bundesliga] Freiburg vs. Bayern Munich (FS1)

4 p.m. - [MLS] Seattle Sounders FC vs. LAFC (ESPN)

6:30 p.m. - [MLS] Sporting KC vs. New York City FC (FS1)

9 p.m. - [MLS] LA Galaxy vs. Portland (FS1)

Monday, March 5:

2 p.m. - [Premier League] Crystal Palace vs. Manchester United (NBC Sports)

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The Astros have 12 games left in the regular season. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

A five-year anniversary Astros-Dodgers World Series matchup would be a doozy on several levels. It’s the most likely matchup, but that doesn’t make it probable much less inevitable. Still, my goodness are they towering over their respective leagues as the regular season is into its final two weeks. With an 8-4 finish over their remaining games the Astros equal the franchise record 107 regular wins amassed in 2019. If the Astros don’t lose again and total an awesome 111 victories, they still probably don’t catch the Dodgers for homefield advantage should they meet in the Series. The Astros are heading to their seventh postseason in the last eight years, the Dodgers to their 10th in a row. That is insane sustained excellence for both. However, each has won only one World Series during these runs. Eight different franchises have won the last eight World Series. From 1982 through 1990 nine different franchises won the World Series.

And then, there were twelve

With the Astros down to a dozen games left as they arrived in Baltimore, a dozen Astros thoughts:

Justin Verlander's start in the series opener vs. the Orioles is his antepenultimate (hoity-toity word for third from last) regular season start. Verlander needs the win in all of them to finish 20-3.

Jose Urquidy starts Friday. In his three remaining starts Urquidy must show better than he has in his last couple or there would be no good reason to go with him over Cristian Javier as the Astros fourth starter in the postseason.

Framber Valdez goes Saturday trying to add on to his single season Major League record of 25 consecutive quality starts. It’s not an official statistic, and “quality” is a stretch when three earned runs allowed in six innings qualifies, but it is remarkable that Framber has had zero bad outings 25 straight times out. The evidence can’t be clearer than NO OTHER PITCHER IN THE HISTORY OF THE GAME has done it. In 18 of the 25 Valdez has yielded no more than two earned runs. Verlander has been magnificent all season. His longest “quality start” streak is 10. Verlander has made 25 starts, meeting the “quality” definition in 20 of them.

Decisive game five of their American League Division Series matchup, the Astros lead 3-2 after seven innings with the opposition top of the order due up in the eighth. Since the robot managerial handbook dictates Ryan Pressly be saved for the ninth, which Astro reliever do you most trust in the eighth?

Yordan Alvarez is batting .302 with 37 home runs and 94 runs batted in. The only Astros ever to hit .300 with 40 homers and 100 RBI in a season are Jeff Bagwell (twice), Lance Berkman, and Richard Hidalgo. As frame of reference, Albert Pujols did .300/40/100 six times. Mike Trout has never done it.

Yordan is obviously the better hitter but Kyle Tucker is the better all-around player. The Astros signed Alvarez for six years 115 million buying out three years of potential free agency. Tucker is on the same service time schedule as Alvarez was, not free agent eligible until after the 2025 season.

Free agent-to-be Aledmys Diaz looms large in the Astros’ postseason lineup. He largely stunk through July 4th but has been firecracker hot since, giving better production per game played than a healthy Michael Brantley would have given. Doubting me? Don’t. From July 5 forward Diaz has a higher slugging percentage than Yordan.

Yuli Gurriel’s defense at first base remains excellent, but if he looked any more washed up at the plate than he has most of this season he might wake up in front of the Galveston Seawall.

It’s just 41 games but other than an early power surge following his acquisition, Trey Mancini has not impressed. Gurriel needs to be replaced, but Mancini hasn’t made much of a case that he’s the man for the job next year.

Jose Altuve’s spirits seemed fine in the dugout Wednesday night after he was removed from the game an inning after taking a pitch off of his left elbow. The elbow needs to be fine. Like Yordan, an injured or ineffective Altuve renders the Astros’ lineup no better than mediocre.

Chas McCormick is fine as part of a platoon in center field. James Click should be in the market for a left-handed hitting CF complement for next season, or a right-handed hitter who handles right-handed pitching adequately. If Click is back as General Manager. What gives there, Jim Crane?

The Astros have played one game all season with Minute Maid Park’s roof open. That should change on the final home stand. It likely won’t, but it should. Most evenings are comfortable now once the sun is down, and it’s not like the air conditioning has to be turned off as the roof opens. The optimal ballpark experience has the roof open. And…if the Astros make it back to the World Series and MLB then dictates the roof be open if rain is not a factor, it is sensible to get a few games under their belts with roof open conditions.

Finessing the game

Whatever one thinks of the LIV golf tour, it absolutely is hurting interest in the PGA Tour. Too many big name players grabbing LIV megabucks is crushing the marketability of PGA tournament fields. Like the upcoming Houston Open November 10-13 for instance. Want a “free” ticket to any remaining Astros home game this year? Just buy a golf ticket through this Sunday.

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