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Weekly soccer report: Kane finishes as 2017 top scorer, Premier League drama kicks off World Cup Year

Weekly soccer report: Kane finishes as 2017 top scorer, Premier League drama kicks off World Cup Year
Club America fans were in high spirits as they witnessed their team win 4-0 over Liga MX rival Toluca on Saturday, December 30, 2017 at BBVA Compass Stadium. Jorge Clara/Deporte Total USA

Soccer fans worldwide are rejoicing as 2018 - a World Cup year - is finally here with the most important tournament in the sport taking place in less then six months. As for the holiday season, the Premier League took much of the attention this week with action from Boxing Day opening the new year with high drama. This was the week in soccer:

Premier League

Boxing Day action got under way with a historic accomplishment as Harry Kane bagged a hat-trick against Southampton to bring his 2017 tally to 39 - breaking Alan Shearer’s 1995 record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year. The accomplishment also grabbed headlines because it made Kane Europe’s top scorer for the year, and the first player not named Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to do so this decade.

On the manager’s end, Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger broke a record of his own as he surpassed the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson for most matches managed in the Premier League. Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal has been a topic of discussion for a few seasons as supporters have grown frustrated not seeing their team win the league since 2004 and failing to qualify for the Champions League this last season.

Liverpool stood out most this week with 5-nil thrashing of Swansea on Boxing Day, a 2-1 win over Leicester on Saturday and a 2-1 win on New Year’s Day thanks to a stoppage time winner by Ragnar Klavan. Chelsea easily won two straight while Manchester City had a 1-0 win over Newcastle and a ni-nil draw against Crystal Palace.

Manchester United were - of the top clubs - under the most scrutiny after being eliminated from the Football League Cup by Bristol City and the scrutiny heightened with two league draws to end the year. United bounced back on New Year's Day as Paul Pogba led the Reds to a 2-0 win at Everton.

Honorable mention goes to Burnley, who despite their last minute loss to Liverpool on New Year’s, held Manchester United and Huddersfield to draws and are quietly in seventh place behind the top teams in the Prem. Leicester City began the year with a 3-0 win over Hudderfield and are in eighth place, a great turnaround considering their start to the season.

Top 5: Manchester City (59), Manchester United (47), Chelsea (45), Liverpool (44), Arsenal (38)

La Liga

No action in Spain over the weekend as clubs took a holiday break. The league returns this weekend as clubs begin the second half of the season. Before then, 12 La Liga teams will take part in the Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg matches on Wednesday and Thursday.

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

Bundesliga

Still another week of winter break in the Bundesliga before clubs even return for domestic cup action.

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

Ligue 1

No league play in France this weekend but many Ligue 1 clubs will take part in the domestic cup as the Coupe de France round of 64 takes place. Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco, Lyon and Nantes will all be on the road as they look to advance to the next round.

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

Serie A

Four draws this weekend in Italy’s top flight and wins by the top two combine to make it look as if Italy is turning into a two-horse race. Given what has happened this season in Italy, it would be hard to discount Inter Milan and Roma but it does look like Napoli and Juventus have hit their stride after early bumps in the road. Inter Milan and Lazio battled to a scoreless draw in the only match between top teams this weekend. Inter were eliminated from the Coppa Italia midweek by rivals A.C. Milan, who did not translate their cup win over to league play. The once great Milan are winless in seven of their last nine league games and sit 11th in the standings.

The top 5: Napoli (48), Juventus (47), Inter Milan (41), Roma (39), Lazio (37)

Liga MX

Houston was host to a Liga MX preseason bout as Club America defeated Toluca 4-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium. Oribe Peralta - who will most likely be a part of Mexico’s World Cup squad this summer in Russia - scored twice as Silvio Romero and new signing Henry Martin scored the other two. Joe Corona, who won the CONCACAF Gold Cup with the U.S. men’s national team last summer, also got some playing time with his new club.

The second half of the Liga MX calendar kicks off this weekend with the Clausura 2018 season. Among the matches to watch will be a rematch of last month’s playoffs between Monterrey and Monarcas Morelia. Defending champions Tigres will go on the road, after a short preseason, to take on Puebla. Pachuca-Pumas UNAM, Toluca-Guadalajara and Queretaro-America will also be matches to keep an eye on. Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha - who won the Clausura 2015 title with Santos Laguna - will debut as the new manager of Cruz Azul as he returns to Mexico following a stints in the Qatari and Scottish first divisions.

 

Dynamo duo in Charity Match 

Hondurans Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto, both forwards who recently finished their first year with the Houston Dynamo, were in their native country taking part in a charity match to raise funds for a friend with health issues. The all-star game of sorts was co-hosted by the Dynamo duo alongside former Premier League midfielder Wilson Palacios at Palacios' sports complex in the northern city of La Ceiba. Elis and Quioto led a young squad composed of teammates from the 2015 FIFA U20 World Cup Honduras team to a 4-2 win over Team Palacios. The cost of admission was 50 Lempiras (USD $2.11).

Elis was named the club's 2017 Player's Player of the Year after helping the Dynamo to their first MLS Cup Playoffs since 2013. Elis scored 10 goals in the regular season and an extra time winner in the knockout round of the playoffs against Sporting Kansas City. Quioto had seven goals off his own, including three in the first three games of the season. Both will be back with the team when the Dynamo begin preseason at the end of this month.

Upcoming Matches (All Times CT):

Tuesday, Jan. 2:

1:45 p.m. - [Premier League] Swansea vs. Tottenham (NBC Sports)

1:45 p.m. - [Coppa Italia] Napoli vs. Atalanta (GolTV)

Wednesday, Jan. 3:

1:45 p.m. - [Premier League] Arsenal vs. Chelsea (NBC Sports)

1:45 p.m. - [Coppa Italia] Juventus vs. Torino (GolTV)

Thurday, Jan. 4:

12 p.m. - [Copa del Rey] Celta Vigo vs. Barcelona (beIN Sports)

2 p.m. - [Copa del Rey] Numancia vs. Real Madrid (beIN Sports)

2 p.m. - [Premier League] Tottenham vs. West Ham (NBC Sports)

Friday, Jan. 5:

11 a.m. - [Serie A] Chievo vs. Udinese (beIN Sports)

1:45 p.m. - [Serie A] Fiorentina vs. Inter Milan (beIN Sports)

1:55 p.m. - [FA Cup] Liverpool vs. Everton (FS1)

1:55 p.m. - [FA Cup] Manchester United vs. Derby County (FS2)

7 p.m. - [Liga MX] Puebla vs. Tigres UANL (Univision Deportes)

9 p.m. - [Liga MX] Atlas vs. Leon (Univision Deportes)

Saturday, Jan. 6:

6:45 a.m. - [FA Cup] Fleetwood vs. Leicester City (FS1)

9 a.m. - [FA Cup] Manchester City vs. Burnley (FS1)

9 a.m. - [Serie A] AC Milan vs. Crotone (beIN Sports)

12:30 p.m. - [FA Cup] Norwich City vs. Chelsea (FS1)

1:45 p.m. - [Serie A] Cagliari vs. Juventus (beIN Sports)

5 p.m. - [Liga MX] Cruz Azul vs. Tijuana (Univision Deportes)

7 p.m. - [Liga MX] Pachuca vs. Pumas UNAM (Univision Deportes)

Sunday, Jan. 7:

8 a.m. - [FA Cup] Schrewsbury vs. West Ham (FS1)

10 a.m. - [FA Cup] Notthingham Forrest vs. Arsenal (FS1)

10 a.m. - [La Liga] Barcelona vs. Levante (beIN Sports)

12 p.m. - [Liga MX] Toluca vs. Guadalajara (Univision Deportes)

1:45 p.m. - [La Liga] Celta Vigo vs. Real Madrid (beIN Sports)

1:45 p.m. - [Coupe de France] Rennes vs. Paris Saint-Germain (beIN Sports Connect)

5 p.m. - [Liga MX] Queretaro vs. Club America (Univision Deportes)

 

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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