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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.

Pellegrini says announcing departure was mistake; Won’t jump into job

Manchester City's manager Manuel Pellegrini, right, and Bayern Munich's manager Pep Guardiola during the Champions League group D soccer match at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Clint Hughes)
AP Photo/Clint Hughes
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Former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini thought it was the right thing to do; His club was reportedly looking for his successor, so why not let them do it in the open.

[ MORE: Barcelona could chase Mata ]

What followed Pellegrini’s announcement that he would leave at the end of season were three straight losses and, arguably, City’s chances at a Premier League title.

From Sky Sports:

“After Guardiola said he was coming to England it was my decision [to go public] because all the media was talking about Guardiola here, Guardiola in Arsenal, Guardiola in Manchester United,” he told The Guardian.

“It was not fair for all managers – when everyone knew he was coming here. If I ask if I would do that again… I have some doubts.”

Pellegrini said the announcement didn’t make it difficult for him, but for his players.

The Argentine also said he’ll wait for an interesting job to come calling, and that he could be done managing forever if such an opportunity doesn’t present itself. That said, we think he’ll find a job that’s to his liking given this comment:

“Of course, I would miss it. The challenge keeps me alive.”

Life is a good motivator.

Will upsets continue in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s third round?

SANDY, UT - OCTOBER 1: The U.S. Soccer Championship trophy sits on display before the game between DC United and Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium October 1, 2013 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images
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The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup hits the third round on Wednesday, with NASL teams entering the fray and at least one fourth-tier or lower side guaranteed to advance to face MLS competition.

The USASA had three teams win second round matches, and two will face each other on Wednesday. The L.A. Wolves knocked off the USL’s Orange County Blues, while L Maquina FC handed the NPSL’s Sacramento Gold an ouster. They will tangle for the right to a high-profile match-up with the L.A. Galaxy.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Gonzalez wins Liga MX with Pachuca ]

We’ll also see NASL vs. USL geographical rivalries when Carolina faces Charlotte and Rayo OKC meets Oklahoma City.

Wednesday’s third round matches
Chattanooga FC (NPSL) vs. Harrisburg City Islanders (USL)
Fort Lauderdale Strikers (NASL) vs. Richmond Kickers (USL)
Jacksonville Armada (NASL) vs. Charleston Battery (USL)
New York Cosmos (NASL) vs. Jersey Express (PDL)
Carolina RailHawks (NASL) vs. Charlotte Independence (USL)
Miami FC (NASL) vs. Wilmington Hammerheads (USL)
Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) vs FC Cincinnati (USL)
Rochester Rhinos (USL) vs. Lansdowne Bhoys FC (USASA)
Indy Eleven (NASL) vs. Louisville City FC (USL)
Saint Louis FC (USL) vs. Minnesota United (NASL)
Rayo OKC (NASL) vs Oklahoma City Energy (USL)
Des Moines Menace (PD) vs. San Antonio FC (USL)
Arizona United (USL) vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks (USL)
La Maquina (USASA) vs. L.A. Wolves (USASA)
Kitsap Pumas (PDL) vs. Sacramento Republic (USL)

Iranian woman “sneaks” into Persian League match dressed as a man

Persepolis FC
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An Iranian woman wanted to see her favorite team play badly, but knew well the unspoken rule: no females at the stadium.

The Independent has the story of a woman who dressed in layers and filmed herself in case trouble came from her attendance.

[ MORE: Police free kidnapped Mexico striker ]

Persepolis FC is the name of the club, and they play in the Persian Gulf Pro League.

From The Independent:

There is no official ban on women attending sports events in Iran, but they are often refused entry so it is rare for women to attend.

In a third video, the woman explains that she layered five T-shirts and five pairs of trousers to hide her figure and covered her face with face paint.

I recognize that this is the norm over there, but it’s still a striking story.

Report: Barcelona ready to swoop if Mourinho deems Mata surplus at Manchester United

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA - OCTOBER 01: Juan Mata (L) of Chelsea shakes hands with manager Jose Mourinho (R) after being substituted during the UEFA Champions League Group E Match between FC Steaua Bucuresti and Chelsea at the National Arena Stadium on October 1, 2013 in Bucharest, Romania.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
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It’s a $40 million question for Manchester United: Will Juan Mata and Jose Mourinho work well together?

Their time at Chelsea was fractured when Mourinho deemed Mata surplus to requirement and shipped the Spaniard to Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Rashford signs new 4-year deal ]

Mata, 28, has been a consistent performer for United, but will his reunion with Mourinho be short-lived? It’s easy to imagine both as ready to move on and Barcelona could be an option if that happens.

Mundo Deportivo says Barcelona could make a bid of close to $40 million in order to help the midfield continue to tick. Mata was a key part of United’s possession-based approach under Louis Van Gaal, and as a player really does fit the bill of a Mourinho-minded mid.

We’re just hoping that if Mata moves, he doesn’t switch anywhere that would change his English language blog posts.