ON THE PITCH

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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Texans vs. Vikings could have fans in attendance. Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The Houston Texans say it's time that fans were allowed to cheer on the home team at NRG Stadium. On Thursday, the team announced extensive safety protocols that would put 15,000 fans in the stands for the Week 4 game against the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 4.

While the Texans are awaiting permission from city and county officials to host a limited number of fans - socially distant and wearing masks – no plans have been announced how much tickets will cost, and who'll have the opportunity to buy them.

You have to love the free enterprise system: hundreds of tickets for the Oct. 4 game already are on sale on secondary market websites. Lower bowl tickets are going for $800 and up. If you don't mind sitting in the nose bleeds, tickets can be had for around $250.

So the question becomes, if you had the chance, would you attend the Texans game in early October? The tickets are big bucks, and there is a whammy – COVID-19. While the rate of COVID-19 infections is on the decline in Houston, the virus remains a major factor in our daily lives, and there's no guarantee that the pandemic won't spike here again.

Here's the rub, at least for me. Of all the sports we have in Houston, a Texans game might be lowest on my wish list of attending in person. Television does NFL games the best. There are dozens of cameras, so when a receiver catches a pass on the sidelines, we get several views, in slow motion even, to see if the receiver's feet were in bounds. We can almost feel the crunch of a quarterback sack. We get highlights of other games. You don't have to sit next to a face painter like David Puddy.

The NFL is a made-for-TV production. Which is, I suspect, part of the reason the Texans rarely open the roof at NRG Stadium. With the roof closed, the field becomes a controlled TV studio, with no worries of weather pranks.

Television doesn't do basketball or baseball nearly as well. Conversely, the experience of attending those games is terrific fun. What beats eating a couple of dogs at an Astros game? Is there even a traditional food at NFL or NBA games?

The Texans promise that strict safety rules will be enforced. And I believe them. Fans will be scattered over the 67,000-seat stadium. I'm not sure how much of a home field advantage that will be. Most of the crowd noise will come from pre-recorded tapes.

Here's one worry. Sure fans will sit apart and socially distanced. But what will happen when the game is over? Will fans file out in orderly, non-contagious single file? I flew Southwest a few weeks ago. The airline makes a big deal – we don't sell the middle seat. Passengers kept their distance during the flight. When the landed, you know how it is, everybody got up and piled into the aisle, shoulder to shoulder for several minutes.

What will happen if some goofball takes off his/her mask during the Texans game? Will there be enough security to handle each case?

Baseball is planning to have some fans attend post-season games at Minute Maid Park next month. UH Cougars, the Dynamo and Dash are playing in front of small crowds. It remains to be seen how safe – or how risky – allowing fans at sports events will be.

Will parents let their kids attend? Is waiting for a vaccine the smart play? If President Trump is right, that could be only a matter of weeks away. If scientists and doctors are right, nestle in for pandemic life another year. Even if scientists do come up with a vaccine, how many Americans will roll up their sleeve? Some believe, in the case of COVID-19, the cure may be worse than the disease. Not me, the moment Dr. Fauci says the vaccine is safe and effective, I'm sprinting to CVS.

The thinnest of silver linings, if ever there was a year worth sitting out, 2020 has been it for Houston sports fans. The Astros are scratching to stay above .500 (their present position), Jose Altuve hasn't had an extra base hit or RBI in almost a month, and Justin Verlander is throwing bullpens on his way to recovery. The Rockets are searching for a new coach, and possibly another team willing to take Russell Westbrook in a trade. The Texans season could go either way, we'll know if a few short weeks.

Why the rush to fill stadiums? The NBA is thriving in a bubble. Why not baseball and football? There's a fine line between safe and sorry.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo already has safety plans for next year, including masks and distancing. That will be interesting. Good luck controlling crowds pushing and shoving for corn dogs and funnel cakes.

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