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PL Sunday preview: Chelsea vs. Man United, Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

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Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes are quickly slipping away, thanks to their current four-game winless run — not to mention Leicester City’s red-hot form — much like Manchester United see themselves falling away from the race for the top-four.

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Bournemouth are desperately hoping just to avoid a relegation dogfight that goes down to the wire, and Chelsea… well, they’re just kind of there, still sitting in the bottom half of the league table. Sunday’s pair of PL fixtures is full of storylines and implications in the context of the season as a whole.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Arsenal’s recent form couldn’t have come at a worse time, which is hardly surprising when considering they’d been far and away the best team in England for a little over 12 straight months; they were bound to slip up at some point. Having been top of the league themselves barely two weeks ago, the Gunners have fallen to fourth, eight points behind Leicester. Not even the return of Alexis Sanchez has provided the much-needed spark for an attack that has failed to find the back of the net in three straight games (305 minutes in total, dating back to their 3-3 draw with Liverpool).

As for Bournemouth, only Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur (9 each) have won more points from their last three league fixtures than the Cherries (7). Callum Wilson (five goals), whose season ended back on Sept. 26 (knee), remains Bournemouth’s leading scorer on the season, though Arsenal youth academy product Benik Afobe has proven an inspired January signing thus far (three goals in four games). Bournemouth are winless in their two all-time meetings with the Gunners, dating back to a 3-0 League Cup defeat in 1987. When these sides met for the first time this season, back on Dec. 28, it was Arsenal who were victorious, 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium.

On the injury front, Bournemouth have a mostly clean bill of health, as Junior Stanislas (knee) is the only recent addition to long-term absentees Wilson, Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings. For Arsenal, Santi Cazorla (knee), Tomas Rosicky (thigh) and Carl Jenkinson (knee) will all miss another month at least, while Jack Wilshere (leg) and Danny Welbeck (knee) remain without definitive timetables to return.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Chelsea vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

This one used to really mean something. Those were the days, weren’t they? These days, Chelsea need a win just to leapfrog Crystal Palace for 12th place. On a positive note, the Blues are unbeaten in 10 games in all competitions since the departure of Jose Mourinho, but have won just three of eight league games during that period. Diego Costa is scoring goals semi-regularly again, but he’s also acting out in his usual Sunday League-like manner, which means he could either spontaneously combust on the field of play, or hop the next flight back to Madrid without telling anyone what’s going on.

As for Man United, they’re actually scoring goals these days (six combined in their last two games – all competitions), which has Louis Van Gaal dreaming of a title challenge once again. On a really positive note, Wayne Rooney has scored seven goals in his last seven games in all competitions (five in five in the PL) and has forged a really sound partnership with 20-year-old Anthony Martial up top (three assists, one goal in last two games – all competitions). A top-four place is still a very realistic target for the Red Devils — though it likely won’t matter with regards to Van Gaal’s job status — but it’ll take everything Rooney and Martial have between them to overcome Van Gaal’s ultra-defensive tactics and score enough goals to get there.

When these sides met on the final matchday of 2015, the proceedings at Old Trafford ended a stale 0-0 draw one might expect from a Van Gaal-versus-Mourinho meeting of the minds, if only the Portuguese had still been in charge at the time. On the injury front, Chelsea are nearly 100 percent healthy, with only Radamel Falcao (leg) still unavailable for selection. For United, the latest injury report is extensive: Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Phil Jones (ankle) and Marcos Rojo (shoulder) will all miss Sunday’s clash, while Marouane Fellaini (knock) is questionable.

Minnesota United host special guests for Aston Villa friendly

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Thousands of Minnesotans and others from the Midwest will flock to St. Paul, Minnesota on Wednesday to see Minnesota United take on Aston Villa. But one group of soccer players and staff in attendance will have traveled from thousands of miles away to enjoy the match.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Minnesota United is hosting the Girls Under-15 team from the LEAD Monrovia Football Academy in Monrovia, Liberia while the team plays in the USA Cup. While the team of 14 players and three staff members are hosted in Minnesota, they’ll also be watching the Aston Villa game from Allianz Field.

“As a club, we’re always looking for ways to connect with our diverse community through the world’s game,” Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright said in a statement. “Our ownership group has worked tirelessly with LEAD Africa to make this trip possible for these girls and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome them to Minnesota. We know it will mean a lot to the more than 35,000 Liberians living here in the Twin Cities and to Liberia’s president, soccer legend George Weah.”

This week, the U-15 team got to attend Minnesota United training and had some fun with Designated Player Darwin Quintero.

The USA Cup is taking place this week in the Twin Cities, with other clubs from all over the world jetting in to play in the tournament. In addition, the organization LEAD Africa, of which the Monrovia Academy is under the umbrella of, is a group that works to empower the future of Africa through sports and education.

For Aston Villa, Wednesday’s match represents the beginning of a season back in the Premier League, and the chance to test themselves against decent opposition. It’s a quick trip to the U.S. for Aston Villa, which finishes up preseason back in England before one last game in Germany at RB Leipzig.

Premier League Friendly Roundup: Leicester, Norwich in action

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Ayoze Perez got off to a great start for his new club on Tuesday, as Leicester topped Scunthorpe United, 1-0.

Perez, who arrived earlier this month from Newcastle in a $38 million transfer, scored on a first-time strike in the box that proved to be the difference in the game.

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Brendan Rodgers side got a chance to get minutes for plenty of first-team regulars. Johnny Evans, Jamie Vardy, Perez and Youri Tielemans all started. Wes Morgan, new signing James Justin, Rachid Ghezzal all came off the bench.

An interesting note was that Harry Maguire, the target of serious transfer interest from Manchester United, came off the bench at halftime and played the second half of the game. According to the latest reports, Man United and Leicester City are still very far apart regarding a transfer fee, so Maguire looks set to remain for the time being.

Elsewhere, Norwich City continued its preseason tour of Germany with a friendly match held behind closed doors. Norwich beat Bonner SC, 4-1, with goals from Adam Idah, Onel Hernandez and Teemu Pukki.

UCL Roundup: Red Star, The New Saints (Wales) advance to second round

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Second legs are underway in the UEFA Champions League first qualification round, and both Red Star Belgrade and The New Saints from Wales are through to the second round.

Here’s a short roundup of UCL action on Tuesday:


Red Star Belgrade 2-1 Sudova (2-1 on Aggregate)

The Serbian giants advance to the next round with a big 2-1 win over Lithuanian Champions Sudova. Richmond Boakye and former Chelsea midfielder Marko Marin both scored in the first half. Red Star Belgrade was set to keep a clean sheet but Sudova scored late.

With the win, Red Star Belgrade moves on to face HJK Helsinki in Finland in the second round.


The New Saints 1-0 Feronikeli (3-2 on aggregate)

Welsh Premier League side The New Saints defeated Kosovan club Feronikeli, 1-0, thanks to a goal from Irish forward Dean Ebbe. Ebbe came off the bench and headed home a lofted ball into the box.

Feronikeli had chances to take the lead early, including twice in the first ten minutes, but blasted shots in the box well over the wall.

UEFA Champions League Second Leg Results

Shkendija 1 – 2 Nõmme Kalju 
Saburtalo 1 – 3 FC Sheriff
Valletta 1 – 1 F91 Dudelange
HB 2 – 2 HJK 

Solskjaer: ‘We just need consistency’

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In a vague, general word, Manchester United manager knows exactly what his club have been missing. Consistency.

More specifically, consistent success.

In a sit-down interview with the BBC, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer mentioned striving for consistency in performances on no less than four occasions, including when speaking about Alexis Sanchez. Man United won eight straight matches in all competitions and 10 of its first 11 under the Norwegian manager.

[READ: De Ligt lands in Turin ahead of Juventus move]

And yet, the consistency wasn’t there late in the season, when Man United faltered down the stretch and won just two of its last ten matches to close the season on a sour note. Man United finished in sixth place, and while Solskjaer said he believed it would be a challenge to break into the top four, he said with some consistent performances, Man United could achieve its goals.

“We have to aim for further up than fourth,” Solskjaer told the BBC. “I would rather be an optimist and be wrong than a pessimist and be right. I am not used to us being fifth or sixth but that is where we are at. That is the size of the challenge. I love that challenge.

“We have to work with the players, sign the right types and gradually make our way to the challenging line. Our players do have quality. They do have a chance. We just need consistency. We have to keep working every single day and not take our eyes off the target. Everyone gets off line at some point but you can’t let it drift too far because then you won’t get to the overall goal.”

Some Man United fans have been mumbling and rumbling due to the slow start in this summer’s transfer window. Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia have both departed on free transfers, while only Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have come in. While it’s not the improvements some fans were hoping for, it’s helped give some of the young players, like James Garner, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and Mason Greenword, some hope that they can get minutes.

Perhaps the push from the young players for first team minutes will make Man United a bit more competitive in training again, which can only help in terms of having success on the field.

The big question remains, which Man United team will we see this season. The one from Solskjaer’s first two months on the job, or the one from his last six weeks.