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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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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