Chelsea, Manchester United secure valuable road points

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It wasn’t easy for either of the English giants, though it would be an exaggeration to say it was hard. Chelsea and Manchester United had their share of obstacles on the road against Champions League minnows, yet each earned a comfortable three points, vaulting them to the top of their UEFA Champions League groups.

Chelsea had the easier of things, showing early signs of dominating Danish champions FC Nordsjaelland. The underdogs had trouble matching the Blues’ early pressure, though by the middle of the first half, FCN were holding enough of the ball to set up in Chelsea’s end and ask a few questions. Had Chelsea not scored before halftime, this match could have been destined for a 0-0, the holders faced with a newly-confident underdog coming out of halftime. Instead, a well-executed goal eventually put in by Juan Mata gave the Blues a halftime lead.

More: Snap judgments on Tuesday’s action

In the second half, Nordsjaelland eventually broke. Chelsea got goals from David Luiz, Mata, and Ramires, leaving the final score at a deceptive 4-0.

The Danes were better than that, and Chelsea deserve credit for putting up a lopsided score against a team that was more than minnows. Ultimately, though, this is just holding serve. The Blues were expected to get these points, got them, and now move on to back-to-back games against Group E co-leading Shakhtar Donetsk. Chelsea’s well-equipped to handle Shakhtar, but as the Ukrainian champions showed today at Juventus, they’ll be formidable.

In Romania, Manchester United got an early scare, conceding an goal that sparked memories of last year’s Champions League disappointment. Take away the score, however, and the match was only slightly different than Chelsea’s. Both English giants were feeling the bite of an emboldened host. While Cluj looked more dangerous than Nordsjaelland, the challenge remained the same. Despite the deficit, United just needed to keep playing their game.

It quickly paid off. Robin van Persie headed United even before half time. In the second half, a beautiful pass from Wayne Rooney produced and unstoppable volley from van Persie. Combined with 65 percent possession, it was a well-earned win for United, 2-1.

That doesn’t mean the Red Devils won’t be in for some criticism, especially after giving Cluj a chance to draw even near the end. Nobody who criticized United before this match will be convinced. But Manchester United (and their fans) should be used to the same qualms they’ve continually heard in the post-Ronaldo era. They never look good. They never win by enough. Their midfield’s never that strong. Other teams control matches. Their defense is leaky. They need to settle on a goalkeeper. Overall, they’re very overrated.

All of which might be true, but season-after-season, the team continues to put up results. They posted 89 points in last year’s Premier League. Two years ago, they won the league and made the Champions League final. As long as the team keeps producing those kind of results, criticisms are better seen as ways to improve, not reasons United aren’t good. They are clearly a good team.

There is, however, the little detail of them missing group stage in last year’s Champions League. Today went a long way to correcting that problem. Three good points on the road give them six through two rounds. The points also make last year look less like a pattern and more like an aberration.

Watch Live: Swansea host Manchester United

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Swansea City welcome Manchester United to the Liberty Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with Jose Mourinho’s side aiming to stay top of the Premier League table.

[ STREAM: Swansea v. Man United ]

Yes, it’s early days, but the Red Devils were imperious in their thumping 4-0 win against West Ham United to open their season. Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic dominated and Mourinho’s men are now a powerful, well-oiled machine.

As for Swansea, they struggled at Southampton but came away with a draw, however the main storyline surrounding the South Wales side this week has been losing Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton for over $60 million. Paul Clement will have to act fast to spend that cash wisely, but there is no doubt the Swans will miss their Icelandic playmaker.

In team news Swansea bring in Kyle Bartley and Roque Mesa as they line up in a 3-5-2 formation with Jordan Ayew and Tammy Abraham up top.

Man United are, unsurprisingly, unchanged.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski; Fernandez, Bartley, Mawson; Naughton, Mesa, Fer, Carroll, Olsson; Ayew, Abraham. Subs: Nordfeldt, Rangel, van der Hoorn, Fulton, Narsingh, Routledge, McBurnie.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Jones, Blind; Matic, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Mata, Rashford; Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Lindelof, Smalling, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard, Martial

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.