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PL Sunday preview: Arsenal’s last stand; Swansea-Boro a relegation battle

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This is it for Arsenal: one last crack, with a clear path, at finishing in the Premier League’s top-four. As for Swansea City and Middlesbrough, fighting relegation is their reality…

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Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

With nearly 100 percent certainty, one of Swansea and Middlesbrough will finish in the bottom-three and be relegated at season’s end, if not both. Ahead of Sunday’s six-pointer at the Liberty Stadium, Paul Clement‘s Swans sit 17th, clear of 18th-place Hull City on goal differential. Boro, meanwhile, are 19th, five points back of Swansea after firing manager Aitor Karanka two weeks ago.

Boro are without a win in their last 11 PL games (four draws, seven losses). Coincidentally, their most recent victory came against Swansea, 3-0 on Dec. 17.

INJURIES: Swansea — OUT: Nathan Dyer (achilles), Angel Rangel (foot) | Boro — OUT: Calum Chambers (foot); QUESTIONABLE: George Friend (calf), Daniel Ayala (hamstring)

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Title race back on after Chelsea lose? ]

Arsenal vs. Manchester City — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

For as disastrous and dysfunctional as Arsenal’s 2016-17 season has been thus far, they’re far from out of contention for yet another top-four finish — but make no mistake: they won’t get there with a loss on Sunday. Heading into this weekend’s monumental clash with fourth-place Man City, Arsene Wenger‘s sixth-place Gunners sit seven points behind Pep Guardiola‘s side with a game in hand. A win at home on Sunday, coupled with three points from that game in hand, would see that gap shrink to a single point.

Arsenal lost their final two league games before the recent international break, a pair of 3-1 defeats to Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion, while City are unbeaten in their last seven league games (four wins in that span), though they enter Sunday’s clash at the Emirates Stadium riding two straight draws. Wenger’s future is as uncertain as it’s ever been, as he claims not even he knows what will happen this summer.

“I’ve always been very clear in my mind,” Wenger said. “I will remain like that. I think it’s a subject that at the moment is not sorted completely out. I have nothing more to add to that. … But anyway, do I stay two months or two years? My commitment will be exactly the same. The time I spent here does not influence my attitude at all.”

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Petr Cech (calf), Santi Cazorla (achilles), Kieran Gibbs (knock) | Man City — OUT: Gabriel Jesus (ankle), Vincent Kompany (knock), Ilkay Gundogan (knee surgery); RETURNING: Kevin De Bruyne (groin)

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.