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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.

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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.

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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.

Hilarious “Friends” spoof video ‘starring’ Messi, Ronaldo (video)

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Given the rivalry surrounding the two megawatt superstars plying their trade in Spain, you may be surprised to learn that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the best of friends.

[ MORE: Top USMNT-Mexico rivalry moments ]

At least that’s what this spoof video conveys, as the Real Madrid and Barcelona stars help each other navigate tax season and toilet troubles.

Brilliant stuff, from FootbOle:

Top USMNT-Mexico moments: Looking back ahead of Saturday

PASADENA, CA - JUNE 25:  Landon Donovan #10 of United States celebrates his goal with teammates Carlos Bocanegra #3 and Alejandro Bedoya #22  against Mexico during the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup Championship at the Rose Bowl on June 25, 2011 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
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You could argue its the biggest match between the U.S. and Mexico outside of the 2002 World Cup’s Round of 16, and there would be few arguments against you.

The United States and Mexico will tangle on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, with the winner advancing to the 2017 Confederations Cup finals in Russia.

It’s only so often that these rivals match up in a “do or die” match. Sure World Cup qualifiers carry critical import, but they don’t always become the decisive moment in the qualifying cycle.

[ MORE: Spurs’ teen shining at center back for U.S. U-23s ]

Aside from the aforementioned World Cup match and the first match in the rivalry — see 1934 below — no other match has carried as much international weight as Saturday.

So with anticipation high, let’s dance backward in time to the Yanks’ best moments in the rivalry. And let’s also imagine what would have to happen to put Saturday in the mix.

(Of course, our apologies to Mexican fans. We aren’t including the times you slapped American soccer in the face).

2001, 2005, 2009, 2013 — “Dos a Cero” to the fourth power

There is no more celebrated score line in USMNT history than the 2-0 hurting it put on Mexico in four successive home World Cup qualifiers.

2002 — World Cup Round of 16

Goals from Brian McBride and Landon Donovan prodded an upset of the world’s then-No. 7 ranked nation, as the USMNT carried a feel of destiny through its best World Cup.

1934 — World Cup qualifier

Aldo Donnelli scored all four goals as the States won the first recorded match against Mexico, and it was a big one. The winner would go on to the 1934 tournament in Italy, while the loser would go on a tour of European friendlies. The States won, and wouldn’t win again until the qualifiers for the 1982 tournament.

2012 — First win at Azteca

It may’ve been a friendly, but Michael Orozco’s finish will go down as the Yanks’ first ever winner in the fortress of Mexico City.

1980 — World Cup qualifier

Though it meant little to the Yanks’ fate in the 1982 tournament — the U.S. finished last in a group with Mexico and Canada — it was the first win over El Tri in 46 years.