Manchester United's Van Persie celebrates his goal against Manchester City during their English Premier League soccer match at Etihad Stadium in Manchester,

Offshore drilling, England: Manchester United 3, at Manchester City 2


Despite long spells of City dominance, Manchester United took a crucial three points from the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Two first half goals from Wayne Rooney capped by a stoppage time winner from Robin van Persie saw the Red Devils defeat their inter-city, 3-2.

After 15 minutes of absorbing a strong start from their hosts, Manchester United again showed their best moments are capable of winning this year’s Premier League. Yet an early double Rooney was not enough to stave off a shootout, with a second half siege from Manchester City producing goals from Yaya Touré and, in the 86th minute, Pablo Zabaleta.

Luck shined on United in the final minutes as a free kick to the right of the area deflected off Samir Nasri in City’s wall. The resulting ball curved into the left side of Joe Hart’s net, giving United full points from their rival.

It was exactly the type of performance we’ve come to expect in big games from this Manchester United team: uneven, at times meek, but in the moments that mattered most, precisely executed.  While last year’s Manchester Derbies hinted City may be immune to United’s potent attack (City outscoring their neighbors 7-1), this year United has stuck the first major blow in the Premier League title race.

With the win, the Red Devils sit six points clear in England.

Man of the Match: While the second goal was one most players should finish, few could replicate Wayne Rooney’s contributions to the opener. He clearly deserves credit for a shot which, pulled back across his body, froze Joe Hart as it rolled just inside the left post from 18 yards. But the shot would have never gotten off were it not for a deft touch on a hard-hit pass from Ashley Young, Rooney opening is right foot to perfectly trap a ball into the space he needed to get clear of three closing defenders.

Despite spending most of the season in the shadow of Robin van Persie, Rooney has quietly put up a prolific start to the season. After today’s tallies, the United talisman is up to six goals and seven assists in league action. Fourteen goals and 16 assists (his current pace) would be a spectacular year for the ever-evolving star.


Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

United was built for this: “Against the run of play” was the common refrain after Manchester United opened their account. City had looked better, the analysis held, forgetting United always looks like this in big games.

Through most of a Premier League season, United’s skill on the ball can dominate games while the Red Devils play some of the best soccer in the world. But against teams like City and Chelsea, United have often conceded control with the hope their speed and execution will provide them with decisive chances in transition.

That’s exactly what happened today. When David de Gea came of his line to claim a through ball in the 15th minute, his first instinct was to get the ball back into play as soon as possible. A rolled pass to Patrice Evra, a chip to Ashley Young, a chest pass from Robin van Persie, and Young is free. Within seconds, the ball is in the back of Joe Hart’s next, all built off an innocuous pass from De Gea.

This is how United will win big games. Only Chelsea can match their skill in attack. Nobody can match their speed, depth, or variety.

City may have been the better side in the first quarter hour, but I doubt Alex Ferguson was worried about it.

Roberto Mancini’s tempting fate: With Manchester City flaming out of Europe after finishing last in their Champions League group, some contend manager Roberto Mancini’s not long for the job at the Etihad. Today, Mancini stoked those flames.

He deserves credit for helping to bring his team back, but a series of curious lineup decisions are sure to draw questions:

  • Mario Balotelli started over Carlos Tevez and was then removed after trying a backheel. If you’re not prepared to live with Balotelli’s idiosyncrasies, don’t start him. Even if you’re fine with his theatrics, the contention Balotelli should start a Manchester Derby over Tévez is difficult to defend.
  • Matija Nastasic continues to start at left-center half over Joleon Lescott. That’s defensible enough, even if breaking up the central defense tandem that won last year’s Premier League is problematic. But when Vincent Kompany got hurt and Kolo Touré came on over Lescott, you started to wonder what Lescott’s done to fall so far in Mancini’s regard.
  • Is there ever a reason to take Yaya Touré off and leave Barry on? That’s what happened in the 84th minute as Mancini brought Eden Dezko on. Perhaps fitness was a concern.

Moments, not spells: Perhaps it’s the elevation of all things Barcelona that has led us to revere spells of control over moments of execution. You would have thought Inter Milan’s 2010 Champions League title would have dissuaded us of the notion, but it may not be that simple. There is something innately logical about assuming the team with the ball is in control, even if that control is often inconsequential.

This is why critics have often undervalued United’s recent teams. They often look second best. They don’t control play as often as other teams. Their midfield seems thin and undermanned. By the standards we’ve come to pursue in the modern, midfield-centric game, United is lacking.

Like José Mourinho as he bossed Inter to that Champions League title (beating Barcelona along the way), Ferguson understands the leverage in those moments of transition where an attacking team can have a rare absolute advantage. In getting players like Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa (out injured on Sunday), he’s built his team to maximize those moments.

On Sunday, that philosophy earned United a crucial win. Maybe they didn’t control the match, but they control the points.

Packaged for takeaway

  • Rio Ferdinand was hit above the left eye by a coin thrown from the Eithad stands as he celebrated United’s third goal. With blood trickling down his face, it was initially unclear he’d be able to finish the game’s final minutes. Just a reminder: It’s still within the power of the crowd’s worst person to ruin a classic match.
  • Jonny Evans appeared to strain his right hamstring while being taken down by Balotelli in the first half. He had to come off for Chris Smalling.
  • David De Gea, who may have only started because Anders Lindegaard’s partner went into labor before the game, gave a strong performance. Against a City team that doesn’t rely on crossing, De Gea should probably start, regardless.
  • It was another game that worked against Joe Hart’s best goalkeeper in the world case. Then again, he’s not the one making it.

Report: Jose Mourinho willing to let Wayne Rooney leave

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United shakes hands with Manager of Manchester United, Jose Mourinho during The FA Community Shield match between Leicester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Wayne Rooney‘s future at Manchester United seems increasingly uncertain.

[ MORE: Tight title race? ]

A report in the Sun newspaper states that United’s captain and talisman, 31, has been told by manager Jose Mourinho that he can leave if it’s regular game time he wants.

Rooney hasn’t started any of United’s last four Premier League games and was left out of their squad for the 4-0 thumping at Chelsea last weekend with a small injury.

Per the report, Mourinho has spoken to Rooney’s advisers and has told them he can not guarantee the England national team captain a starting role.

There’s no doubting Rooney’s huge impact at United over the past 12 years since he arrived at Old Trafford. He’s won five Premier League titles, a UEFA Champions League title, two League Cups and an FA Cup.

Rooney is also just three goals shy of breaking the all-time club record for number of goals scored — he has scored 246 times for United in all competitions — which Sir Bobby Charlton has held for over 40 years and although he has this season plus two more on his huge contract, it seems like he’s reaching a major crossroads in his career.

Even if he is willing to stick around for the final years of his playing days and get stuck into a bit-par role a la Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, you know that Rooney will still make an impact.

The Englishman is stuck in a rut but so are United.

If fit, it would be very surprising to not see him feature heavily in the next few days as United host bitter rivals Manchester City in the EFL last 16 on Wednesday and then Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports).

Griezmann wins best player award in Spain for last season

SEVILLE, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23:  Antoine Griezmann of Club Atletico de Madrid looks on during the match between Sevilla FC vs Club Atletico de Madrid as part of La Liga at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuanon October 23, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
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VALENCIA, Spain (AP) Antoine Griezmann has won the best player award in the Spanish league for last season.

The Atletico Madrid forward was announced as the winner in a ceremony organized by La Liga in Valencia on Monday. The Frenchman was not at the ceremony.

[ MORE: Ballon d’Or omissions ]

Atletico also had Diego Simeone win the best coach award, Diego Godin earn the best defender award, and Jan Oblak clinch best goalkeeper.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi was selected as the best forward, and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric as the best midfielder.

Team captains voted for the top players in each position, while a data-analysis system generated the best player award.

Barcelona won the Spanish league last season, ahead of Real Madrid and Atletico.

Biggest omissions from the Ballon d’Or shortlist

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (R) is chased by N'Golo Kante of Chelsea (L)  during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

France Football released the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or award given to the world’s best player.

As expected in a EURO year, there are several Portuguese standouts to go with the usual suspects.

There are also some odd omissions.

[ MLS: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Alexis Sanchez was Arsenal’s second-leading scorer as the Gunners finished second in the Premier League, and the South American attacker scored three goals as Chile won its second-straight Copa America, this one on American soil. It’s baffling that he’s not on the list.

N'Golo Kante enjoyed a season as the engine of the best story in Premier League history, manning the midfield for Leicester, and followed it up by helping France reach the EURO 2016 final. Pretty good, right?

Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic were key pieces in Barcelona’s run to the La Liga crown despite being limited by the transfer ban. Mascherano followed it up by captaining Argentina to the Copa America Centenario final, while Rakitic starred alongside Ivan Perisic as Croatia won a tricky EURO 2016 group before falling to eventual winners Portugal.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 11: Fernando Torres of Club Atletico de Madrid is surrounded by (L-R) Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on January 11, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Mascherano (far left) and Rakitic (second from right) are among several Barcelona players who didn’t make the cut (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images).

Harry Kane may’ve not been a good choice to take corner for England, but he also was one of the best all-around attackers in the world as Tottenham surged into the Top Four of the Premier League.

With four goalkeepers making the cut, it shows that club success is more important than performance. David De Gea‘s season was certainly on the same plane as Buffon, though the latter won the league with Juventus and edged Spain at EURO 2016.

Marcelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and David Silva were also players who succeeded for both club and country and could’ve found their way onto the 30.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Finally, let’s see how I fared in projecting the 30 men back in mid-September:

— I got 24 on the nose, wrongly guessing that Kante, Kane, Alexis, Mascherano, Rakitic, and Olivier Giroud would make the cut. Giroud led Arsenal and France in scoring, but if Alexis wasn’t going to make it the coiffed Frenchman had no hope.

— Of the six I didn’t get, only one brings me great shame: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should’ve been in the first 15 names on any list, not missing the post entirely. Paulo Dybala is a bit of a shocker from the crew, and Koke is a tricky miss. Luka Modric was our No. 31, while Rui Patricio was our 35. Diego Godin was a bad miss.

— What to learn from this: Atletico Madrid was obviously credited for its return to the UCL final, so Godin and Koke prove that carried a bit more weight than Kante and Giroud making the final with France, and Alexis thriving at the Copa America.

Whose historic hiccup was worse: Portland or Columbus?

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 6: Kei Kamara #23 of Columbus Crew and Liam Ridgewell #24 of Portland Timbers go after a ball during the second half of the game at Providence Park on March 6, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Timbers won the match 2-1. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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It’s been less than a year since we discussed who was best suited to return to the MLS Cup Final following Portland’s 2-1 win over Columbus in the 2015 title match.

Now we’re wondering who’s fall was more shameful, the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew each missed the playoffs, just over 11 months after contesting the final. That’s never happened before.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

We asked our staff to take a stand on the matter of who flubbed worse: Gregg Berhalter’s Crew or Caleb Porter’s Timbers.

Andy Edwards

Columbus: 2016 was Gregg Berhalter’s third season in charge in Columbus, and in each of his first two years, Crew SC took a gigantic step forward — from non-playoff side to in the playoffs in 2014; from young, naive playoff team to MLS Cup hosts in 2015 — which meant 2016 was supposed to be the culmination of a truly great revolution in Columbus.

They started the season slow, with no wins in their first five games. But they had done the same thing just 12 months earlier and there they were playing for the Cup in December. The Crew looked to be slowly turning this season’s corner when the Kei Kamara/Federico Higuain thing exploded and effectively ended their season in May.

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The big knock on Crew SC last year, at least for me, was that they never seemed to figure out a Plan B — if “hit it long for Kei, he’ll knock it down, and Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram will run onto it and toss the alley-oop back to him inside the six” wasn’t working, you’d already beaten them.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

2016 exposed Berhalter, perhaps more than any player on the roster, because of the elongated nature of those struggles — literally the entire season. Finlay (6 goals, 9 assists) and Meram (5 goals, 13 assists) put up fine numbers once again, but they rang hollow for a losing team going nowhere all season long.

Wil Trapp’s age-23 season was completely wasted — he’s no longer “a young player” — and I’d take a long, hard look at Europe this winter if I were him. The defense has been an unmitigated disaster the last two season (53 and 58 goals conceded), mostly due to the all-out attacking nature of Berhalter’s game plans — hint: defending 2-on-4 against counter-attacks almost never ends well. The “other” Kamara, Ola, actually panning out was the saving grace that kept them within a mile of the playoff race.

Nick Mendola

Portland: Maybe it’s an odd year thing; Portland won the 2015 MLS Cup after claiming the West’s best record in 2013.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Timbers ran out of luck under newly-extended Caleb Porter in his fourth season on the job. This time, no one bailed them out.

Portland came out of nowhere to claim the West’s No. 1 seed in 2013, as Porter engineered an astounding 15 draws including 10 on the road. The tactics and lineup selection helped, but so did the arrivals of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson (pretty important, no?).

The Timbers missed the playoffs by a point in 2014, a 3W-1D end to the season not enough to make up for a horrible start to the season.

The next season saw the Timbers win it all, but not without needing a three-match winning streak to leap ahead of four teams and claim the third-seed (Seattle, LA, and KC all finished two points back). Six games later, they went from almost out to on top of the MLS world.

So what happened this year, with many falling all over ourselves to praise the long-term prospects of a Timbers dynasty? A giant failure. The Timbers failed to win a single road game, tossing aside their strong home field advantage (Portland was 12W-3L-2T at Providence Park).

SANDY, UT - APRIL 19: Head coach Caleb Porter of the Portland Timbers encourages his team during their game against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium April 19, 2014 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

The Timbers scored the second-most penalties in the league this year, with five, so it’s not like fortune avoided them (The Red Bulls didn’t score one).

But, oh, this was ugly.

Portland took three of its the final 12 points available to it. The Timbers lost big in Vancouver and Houston, two non-playoff destinations. In its last 13 games, Portland lost nine and won four.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

The Timbers completed the fewest passes in Major League Soccer, 400 less than the closest competitor and 4,300 behind the league-leading Revs. Portland couldn’t take the ball away, either, with the second-fewest interceptions in the league.

You could even argue that losing 4-1 in Vancouver on Decision Day — a loss to a knocked-out Cascadia Cup rival — makes it worse than Columbus’ season alone. This was awful stuff, albeit schadenfreude for the anti-Porter brigade.

Oh, and they bombed out of a poor CONCACAF Champions League group without a Liga MX or MLS opponent in it.

Alright, so Andy tabbed Columbus and Nick took Portland. Let’s get a tiebreaker in here.

Matt Reed

Every champion has a target on its back but the Timbers managed to essentially bring back all of its key starters from a season ago, despite losing Maxi Urruti. The Timbers were involved in 22 games separated by one goal or less in 2016, with Caleb Porter’s side winning only seven of those contests. Had one more game gone in their favor the Timbers would likely be back in the postseason.