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Weekly Soccer Recap: Barcelona win El Clasico, Premier League ready for Boxing Day

Messi of Barcelona celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 23, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. Dennis Doyle/Getty Images

FC Barcelona won the weekend with a win over Real Madrid but there was plenty left to talk about after the latest weekend in soccer. The Catalans now hold a comfortable lead in their league, which is a common theme across the big leagues in Europe. Here is the week in soccer:

Premier League

In midweek action, seven Premier League teams took part in the English League Cup quarter-finals that saw Arsenal advance over West Ham, Chelsea narrowly defeat Bournemouth, Manchester City outlasting Leicester City on penalties and Manchester United eliminated at Championship side Bristol City.

Arsenal and Liverpool got together Friday to deliver a 3-3 thriller at the Emirates while Everton and Chelsea kicked things off Saturday with a nil-nil draw at Goodison Park. Manchester City picked up a 4-0 win over Bournemouth, Tottenham a 3-0 win over Burnley and Leicester drew 2-2 with Manchester United at the King Power. In another notable match - unrelated to the title race - Newcastle went on the road to defeat West Ham 3-2 at London Stadium.

All of these results mean Manchester City, who are still undefeated with a 18-1-0 record, now have a 13 point lead at the halfpoint of the season with the league title all but [officially] clinched. The drama for the rest of the season will lie with the race to clinch places 2-4 in the table to clinch a spot in next year’s UEFA Champions League and there’s no better time to amplify the that drama than Boxing Day - the Prem’s version of NFL Thanksgiving football or the NBA’s Christmas day lineup.

Top 5: Manchester City (55), Manchester United (42), Chelsea (39), Liverpool (35), Tottenham (34)

La Liga

Soccer fans across the world where tuned in on Saturday for the most important bout of the season in La Liga: El Clásico. FC Barcelona outlasted a fiery Real Madrid from the get-go and walked out of their rivals stadium with a 3-0 win. Coupled with Atlético Madrid’s shocking loss at Espanyol on Friday, the weekend results now give Barça a nine-point lead at the top in what looks will be the Catalan’s 25th championship season. The other two teams currently in the top five - Valencia and Sevilla - also lost this weekend as the league takes a break until the first weekend of the new year.

The 5: Barcelona (45), Atlético Madrid (36), Valencia (34), Real Madrid (31), Sevilla (29)

Bundesliga

The Bundesliga is on it’s three week hiatus but before clubs took their winter break, 12 Bundesliga clubs took part in the Third Round of the German Cup. The biggest named bout was clearly the rivalry match between Bayern Munich and Dortmund that ended in a 2-1 win for the Bavarians. With an 11 point lead in the league, Munich also keeps their cup run alive to see out a season with multiple trophies. Mainz, Schalke, Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen, Werder Bremen and Eintracht Frankfurt were the other Bundesliga sides to advance.

Top 5: Bayern Munich (41), Schalke 04 (30), Dortmund (28), Bayer Leverkusen (28), RB Leipzig (28)

Ligue 1

If you missed Ligue 1 action this week, nothing major changed with the top five as all of those clubs added three points to their total. Paris Saint-Germain arrives at the midpoint of the season with a nine-point lead after a 3-1 win over Caen. The lead is a manageable one for PSG but the tough part will be managing out a congested schedule. There is a three week break in the league but before that the Parisians will have two domestic cups to play in. Monaco and Lyon are not dead yet but they’ll have to be much sharper in the second half of the season.

Top 5: Paris Saint-Germain (50), Monaco (41), Lyon (41), Marseille (38), Nantes (33)

Serie A

Of the top league’s in Europe, Italy’s has clearly been the most level and the closest title race by far. Inter Milan suffered a setback after suffering their second loss of the season at Sassuolo. Napoli picked up a 3-2 win over Sampdoria but not without a bit of suspense, giving up a penalty in the 27th minute and having Mario Rui sent off in the 77th minute. Juventus and Roma faced off in a battle of top five teams where the Zebras got a 1-0 win to hold Roma at fourth place. A.C. Milan suffered a second consecutive loss as both Milan clubs head into Tuesday’s Italian Cup match looking for a boost in morale.

The top 5: Napoli (45), Juventus (44), Inter Milan (40), Roma (38), Lazio (36)

Liga MX

Monterrey won the domestic cup over Pachuca in a 1-0 Copa MX final win, picking up a nice consolation prize after losing the league final to crosstown rival Tigres. The Clausura 2018 season begins next weekend, meaning clubs will be wrapping up their middle of the year preseason this week. Club America, led by Mexico’s national team coach at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Miguel Herrera, face Toluca FC on Saturday afternoon at BBVA Compass Stadium in on of this weekend’s friendlies (TICKETS).

Upcoming Matches (All Times CT):

Tuesday, Dec. 26:

6:30 a.m. - Tottenham vs. Southampton (NBC Sports)

9:00 a.m. - Manchester United vs. Burnley (NBC Sports)

11:30 a.m. - Liverpool vs. Swansea (NBC Sports)

Wednesday, Dec. 27:

1:45 p.m. - Newcastle United vs. Manchester City (NBC Sports)

Thursday, Dec. 28:

2:00 p.m. - Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal (NBC Sports)

Friday, Dec. 29:

1:45 p.m. - Crotone vs. Napoli (beIN Sports)

Saturday, Dec. 30:

5:30 a.m. - Fiorentina vs. AC Milan (beIN Sports)

11:30 a.m. - Manchester United vs. Southampton (NBC)

5:00 p.m. - [Friendly] Club America vs. Toluca (Univision Deportes)

Sunday, Dec. 31:

6:00 a.m. - Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City (NBC Sports)

10:30 a.m. - West Bromwich vs. Arsenal (NBC Sports)

Monday, Jan. 1:

6:30 a.m. - Brighton vs. Bournemouth (NBC Sports)

9:00 a.m. - Burnley vs. Liverpool (NBC Sports)

9:00 a.m. - Leicester City vs. Huddersfield Town (CNBC)

11:30 a.m. - Everton vs. Manchester United (NBC Sports)

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Here's what to make of the Rockets free agency moves. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No NBA team with title aspirations entered the offseason with more questions than the Houston Rockets. Ironically, Houston's situation got more precarious as the offseason went along. From head coach Mike D'Antoni walking away after the season to general manager Daryl Morey following suit shortly after that, the Rockets have been a sinking ship in desperate need of stability. They found some of that once new head coach Stephen Silas was hired, but the boat took on more water when star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanded to be traded a couple of weeks later.

It's been a giant roller coaster and it was unclear how Houston would approach their free agency. Would they double down on contending for a championship to try and convince their star players to stay or would they be forced to rebuild?

It looks like Houston tried to thread the needle and accomplish both: They appear ready to rebuild if they can't convince James Harden to stay, but also addressed roster needs and acquired better fitting pieces for their stars. It's hard to say whether or not they got better, but they're certainly a lot younger and look to play a lot different. Let's take a look at each player and how they fit into the framework.

Christian Wood

Contract:

3 years, $41 million

Grade:

B+

If there's a signing that embodies Houston's offseason, it's Christian Wood. For obvious reasons and some subtle ones, Wood is the exact kind of player Houston had to acquire this summer. Let's start with the obvious: Wood is the perfect player to have alongside both James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of his unique set of skills. Wood can hit threes at a high clip for someone his size (36.8% for his career) and stretches the floor for the moments you want Russell Westbrook barreling to the rim or James Harden trying to break a trap.

Lob threat

The Rockets didn't have a big man with that capability on the roster last year, so they had to resort to trading for Robert Covington and going small so they could properly space the floor. However, in doing that the Rockets lost their best lob threat and limited themselves on offense even further. This is where Wood solves the second problem: He may not be as good of a lob threat as Clint Capela, but he's damn close.

Over the past few years, the Rockets have slowly phased out pick and roll out of their offense and resorted to isolation. Part of it is because of how teams have defended the pick and roll, but part of it is also them not having the option anymore. James Harden is too good of a pick and roll ball handler for it to not be a part of the Rockets' attack. Adding more pick and roll to Houston's offense should be a priority next season, regardless of what else Silas decides to do.

Clint Capela was the perfect center for James Harden. P.J. Tucker was the perfect center for Russell Westbrook. Christian Wood is the perfect center for both.

Defensive rebounding

Another weakness Houston needed to address this offseason was their defensive rebounding (26th in NBA last season). It got to the point where it was a rarity that Houston would win the rebounding battle against good teams. This was partly by design and partly because of roster weakness. Houston was so porous at rebounding in the beginning of the season, they decided to emphasize turning over opponents to even the possession battle. If Houston were to even marginally improve in defensive rebounding, it could have a drastic positive impact on their defense.

Per 36 minutes:

22.0 PPG

10.6 RPG

1.5 BPG

65.9% True Shooting

Houston also replenished their coffers in the process of acquiring Wood. By flipping Robert Covington to the Blazers, the Rockets netted two draft picks back after losing two the prior offseason in the Westbrook trade. It may not matter in the grand scheme of next season, but these assets could be especially useful if Houston pivots to a rebuild. They could also be useful to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline if Houston gets Harden's buy-in. (As an aside, the series of transactions that led to Wood are impressive and reflect well on new GM Rafael Stone's ability to get deals done.)

The subtle reason Wood embodies their offseason is his age, 25 years old. Wood would immediately become the youngest starter on the team and be a building block piece on the next iteration of the Rockets. He's also old enough to make an immediate impact should Houston acquire a ready-made blue chip prospect in a James Harden trade. With the 76ers rumored to be a team interested in Harden's services, it probably isn't a coincidence that Ben Simmons (24 years old) falls neatly into Wood's age group. It also probably isn't a coincidence that the ideal team for Simmons has always been imagined to be a team that can spread the floor at the four other positions on the court. Having Wood is great start to try and accomplish that.

David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Jae'Sean Tate

Contracts:

Negligible

Grade:

B-

Nwaba, Brown, and Tate are all being placed in one category because it's quite clear what the Rockets are trying to accomplish: Take bets on young, cheap wings on the market and hope one pans out enough to make the final rotation for Stephen Silas.

While David Nwaba technically wasn't signed this offseason, he's essentially a free agency signing because the Rockets signed him up a few months ago with the knowledge he wouldn't be able to play in the first year of his deal. He's the oldest of this group (27 years old), has the largest wingspan (7'0"), and has logged the most NBA minutes (3295). Because of all this, he's probably the safest bet to make Houston's final rotation. However, just because he's the 'safest bet' doesn't mean he's a 'safe bet' per se.

Nwaba suffered a season-ending achilles injury on December 9th of last season and has spent the past year rehabbing. It's unclear how he will respond from this, but before the injury, Nwaba had found a nice role in Brooklyn as a combo forward who could shoot well enough from beyond the perimeter (34.4% for his career). The Rockets have desperately needed competent perimeter defenders off the bench since their 2017-18 campaign and a healthy Nwaba was just that.

Sterling Brown, 24, found his way on the fringes of the Bucks' rotation the past few seasons and gained the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer enough to play nearly 15 minutes a game. Brown is a pesky defender and average three-point shooter (34.5% for his career) and like the other wings in this category, he doesn't need the ball. He's probably the second most proven wing here and if he cracks the rotation, it's unlikely he will have to play more than he did in Milwaukee.

Jae'Sean Tate, 25, is probably the most intriguing prospect of this bunch as he's never played in the NBA before. Tate played under new Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver on the Sidney Kings and averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 66.0% shooting from the field last season while earning first-team All-NBL honors. He's 6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan and was considered to be one of the top basketball prospects outside the NBA before signing with Houston. The Rockets appear to be quite high on him considering they used part of their mid-level exception to sign him to a three-year deal.

The Rockets already have much of their rotation locked in:

James Harden and Russell Westbrook will likely play at least 35 minutes a piece, P.J. Tucker will probably play around 32 minutes, and finally Danuel House and Christian Wood will likely play around 30 minutes each. That leaves 78 minutes for a bench that already has Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore. Also, Houston will probably sign another center before the season starts. Now, the Rockets may try to ease the load off of some of their older starters, in which case there might be more time available. However, whatever way you slice it, they really only need one of these wings to crack the rotation for regular season purposes.

It's unlikely all three signings end up backfiring for them, but we'll see. Stranger things have happened.

It's also convenient that all three of these players are 27 years or younger should the Rockets decide to trade Harden at the trade deadline. Like Wood, these signings give Houston the option to pivot in another direction. Because of Houston's lack of room under the apron, they didn't have the option to use their full mid-level or bi-annual exception. Ring-chaser types also weren't going to sign with the Rockets for the minimum given the uncertainty surrounding their stars. This was a nice way for Houston to hedge their bets while also filling out the roster with possible contributors.

The Rockets aren't done making moves yet, but they're close. Understanding the circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of what they did in free agency.

Overall Grade: B

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