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Key man in Sunday’s Manchester Derby? Yaya Touré, of course

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Three finalists for 2012’s African Player of the Year were announced this week, though one candidate’s case makes him the clear favorite for the award. While Didier Drogba inspired in leading Chelsea to Champions League glory and Alex Song had his best year as a pro for Arsenal (mostly), neither player’s influence matched Yaya Touré’s. Though Robin van Persie’s goal totals won him last season’s major individual Premier League honors, Touré was the best player in the league, a dominating presence in the middle of the park that help capture Manchester City’s first Premier League title.

It’s no surprise Michael Cox, writing for the Guardian, picks out Touré when discussing keys to Sunday’s Manchester Derby. Against Manchester United, the Ivorian can be particularly influential against a team whose main weakness lie in the middle of the park.

Cox discusses Alex Ferguson’s options matching up with Touré in deep midfield, but it’s when Touré comes forward that Manchester City’s most effective. That Touré can start deep and still have a determining factor in the attacking phase (or, pushed forward later in matches) is part of what makes him an elite player. It’s also why relying on a forward to mark him (as, Cox illustrates, United has done in the past) is difficult to pull off. Touré can win most of those individual battles, and when he doesn’t, his movement forward pulls one of your attackers too far upfield.

MORE: Title to be settled in Manchester, again

Defensively, it’s better to concede Touré’s influence higher up the pitch and use a midfielder to pick up him as he ventures forward (something that almost requires playing three in the middle versus City). This is where Manchester United may miss a player like Anderson. The Brazilian midfielder has the strength and athleticism to compete with Touré, but sidelined with a hamstring injury, Anderson will miss tomorrow’s match. Ferguson’s other midfield options — Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes, and Tom Cleverley — all beg a forward, Wayne Rooney, to come back into the picture.

Depending on how United set up, they may be able to dedicate Rooney to the role without undo damage to their attack. Ferguson has used a midfield diamond at various points throughout the season. If he plays Rooney at the top of that diamond, United can afford to have Rooney follow Touré deep into the defensive zone knowing the speed of Ashley Young and/or Antonio Valencia can bring van Persie and Javier Hernández back into the game.

MORE: Chelsea finally finds three in league

Valencia, however, presents another option, one Ferguson’s highly unlikely to use. For Ecuador, the nominal right winger has player through the middle. In England, he’s ill-equipped to do so from an attacking perspective, but Touré’s presence (and Manchester City’s dependence on it) might justify giving Valencia the role Park Ji-Sung tried to perform last October. With his speed and strength, could Valencia be the man to help mitigate Touré?

We’ll likely never know. At least, not tomorrow. The most likely scenario sees Ferguson trust Rooney to stymy Touré, though as Cox points out, there are drawbacks to that plan, too.

His preview’s worth the quick read.

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET