Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Carling Cup

One hour from now, at Old Trafford, the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final will begin between Manchester United and Manchester City. By the time I post this online, the match will be over and we will know the identity of Aston Villa’s opponents in the Carling Cup Final at Wembley. If it is Manchester City, it will be their first major Wembley final for 29 years – and should they win that, it will be their first trophy since they won the same competition 34 years ago. As far as Manchester United are concerned, this will be the eighth League Cup semi-final they have contested under Alex Ferguson – and they’ve won all but one of the previous seven.

If this build-up seems to overstate the momentous nature of the game, then good. That was the intention. Because this is a big game, and it proves that the competition is not “only the Carling Cup” any more.

It is customary (and has been for a long time) to belittle and ridicule England’s second domestic trophy – usually for its unfortunately regular re-branding name changes and occasionally unfortunate nicknames (remember the ‘Worthless’ Worthington Cup?) or for the fact that top Premiership managers, led by Arsene Wenger, have tended to treat it as a youth tournament, and shrug off any supposed disappointment when their sides are inevitably dumped out by lesser opposition playing at full strength. While pundits and older football fans complain that the FA Cup has lost its glamour and importance in the football calendar for the bigger teams, the League Cup never seems to have had any in the first place.

So be it, but in recent seasons, with each team’s chances for silverware getting narrower and narrower, the Carling Cup is taking on ever greater importance. And why not? It’s as much a trophy as any other, let’s not forget – as well as a memorable trip to Wembley for fans and players. This should be noted in the case, particularly, of ‘big four’ teams Arsenal and Liverpool, neither of whom have yet played a final at the new national stadium. Fans of each team, starved of any silverware since 2004 and 2006 respectively, would surely not turn their noses up at a Carling Cup win now?

I would suggest that Jose Mourinho is at least partly responsible for the tournament’s resurgence in recent years. When he arrived at Chelsea in 2004 he was clearly aware that he would be required to hit the ground running and make bringing honours to Stamford Bridge an instant priority to justify Abramovich’s huge investment in the club. Jose, presumably knowing nothing of national ‘Worthless Cup’ scoffing, put out full-strength sides in every round – and promptly won the trophy in a thrilling final against Liverpool at the Millennium Stadium. Chelsea players of the time, having gone on to win the league that year, later claimed that it was the confidence and excitement lifting that trophy relatively early on in the season gave the squad that helped them to kick on and take their first Premier League title in 2005. Mourinho never changed his approach to the cup while in charge of Chelsea, winning it again in 2007. It wasn’t until Mourinho’s Chelsea and more recently Manchester United and Spurs, started taking the tournament more seriously, that any Carling Cup tie could ever considered ‘big’.

But tonight’s game is big – and not just because it’s a derby game. It’s not even because it’s the second leg in a tie whose first leg ended as a bad tempered affair with an ex-player taunting his former employers and Gary Neville once again being a bit silly in the face of a fierce rival club. It’s big because it’s the Carling Cup Semi-Final; and the prize is playing in a cup final at Wembley. For Man City manager Roberto Mancini it’s the chance to emulate Mourinho and start with an early trophy – one that will do his team no harm in terms of confidence or credibility as far as challenging the big four this season and in the future. For Manchester United and Alex Ferguson it’s a chance to dispense with an upstart neighbour in time-honoured fashion and give their season the kick up the backside it needs to get back on track following their disappointment in the earliest stages of the FA Cup.

On the other side of the coin, should Manchester City lose, and lose badly, it will cast doubt on the extent of their development since the new owners came on board in 2008, and upon the wisdom of replacing popular manager Mark Hughes mid-season. The Carling Cup represents, alongside possibly the FA Cup, their best chance of rediscovering trophy-winning ways in 2010. Should it slip through their fingers, there may linger the feeling that, so far, the revolution hasn’t quite happened at Eastlands.

If Man United lose tonight, it leaves the champions battling on only two fronts. Of course, if, free of the distractions of the domestic cups they go on to win the Premier League and the Champions League as is always eminently possible with Ferguson’s team, there will be little talk of the Carling Cup that got away. If they don’t, however, a barren season that comes down to defeats to Leeds United and Manchester City will no doubt stick in the throat of the veteran manager.

Personally, I would be pleased to see Man City go through. In a final between themselves and Aston Villa, there is not a team or a set of fans I would begrudge a little glory after such a long time waiting. With over 60 trophyless years between them, I think only the most embittered Man United or West Brom fans would. As with Spurs’ Carling Cup win in 2008, it’s nice to see the pool of clubs able to be win trophies widen as the Premier League levels out in terms of quality. And, finally, it’s nice that the clubs contesting it seem to actually care.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Too Cold, Too Hot

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, apparently. It was in absence that I started this blog – in the arid desert of a football-less summer, in one of the odd-numbered years with no meaningful tournament to watch, with no huge build-up or crushing disappointment to savour alongside a cold, icy cider in a lazy, sweaty beer garden. They won’t be calling it the Long Hot Summer of 2009, but there were a few balmy days in there when I longed for the brisk chill of autumn and winter – when my thick Scottish blood, rosy cheeks and well-padded, hirsute frame would steel me against the bitter elements of the colder seasons, while little African and South American footballers donned gloves, scarves and even tights in attempts to survive 90 minutes of running around in places like Hull, Stoke, Wigan and Wolverhampton. No matter what the weather would be like outside, there was the dream of huddling round the big screen in a cosy pub, pint glasses slipping out of gloved hands, or staying in on a freezing cold Saturday, kept warm merely by the sound of Jeff Stelling’s gentle laughter at another hyperactive, stumbling live report by Chris Kamara.

Yes, the football fan craves the winter. The schedules are hectic, the season is starting to take shape and Alex Ferguson’s padded coats balloon into Everest-grade sleeping bags by mid-January.

But this year we survived Christmas and New Year to discover: absence, again. This time it’s the winter that’s scuppered us.

Last week the Carling Cup semi-finals, one of which was certain to be a pretty tasty Manchester derby, were called off. No big deal, really – I won’t miss a Tuesday night match too much.

But this weekend saw the cancellation of all but two Premier League matches, all but four Championship games, all but two League One matches and every single League Two game. Most of the lower league ties were off because of frozen pitches – effective undersoil heating technology does not, alas, stretch to the likes of Aldershot Town and Wycombe Wanderers. The Premier League matches were cancelled because it was deemed unsafe for fans to reach the ground amid the icy conditions found in almost all areas of the UK (but not, it seems, in Birmingham, where City were able to hold Manchester United to a very creditable draw, or in North London, where Arsenal drew with Everton as I struggled to stay on my feet in those very surrounding streets). Fair enough, I suppose – though it does somewhat beg the question why they bother having undersoil heating at all when the match gets called off anyway.

As I type, Manchester City are successfully playing against Blackburn, so maybe a thaw is upon us and the Premier League has had its cancellations for this year – but the sad fact of the matter is that there was a Premier League weekend, even a Super Sunday, without a full programme of football. Because of some snow. At the height of the season. No orange balls or hilarious slips by goalkeepers. No insane fat Geordies with no shirts on in the stands. And now the top team in the league has a game in hand, leading a month or so of the usual tedious mid-afternoon sports headlines where “Chelsea open up a five point gap at the top! Oh no, wait, it’s only two points now!” or “Manchester United close the gap on Chelsea to just a point! But have, er, played a game more.” Ugh.


All of which means that the football fan (i.e. me) has to focus their attention on sunnier climes for their football fix.

Luckily the Africa Cup of Nations has just kicked off, albeit with an extremely dark cloud hanging over it. When the bus carrying the Togolese national team through Angola came under sustained gunfire on Saturday and three of their staff were tragically killed, it seemed that the tournament might not even go ahead. Even now there is the nagging fear that another violent incident would surely see the competition abandoned. It’s a horrible thought, but I can’t help but wonder what action FIFA would take if something like this happened on the opening day of the World Cup – and it’s not like South Africa is such a safe country, either.

More happily, the opening game of the tournament generated a fairly spectacular result, when Mali, 4-0 down to hosts Angola with 11 minutes left to play, managed to come back and draw the game 4-4. Africa Cup of Nations tournaments are known for being high-scoring affairs, with the 2008 tournament seeing an incredible 99 goals (an average of over 3 a game), due, in part I’m sure, to a dearth of defensive quality from some of the weaker nations, but still – it’s eye-catching and entertaining stuff. It would certainly be great to see a truly great competition emerge from such a depressing start.

The shocks have continued today, with minnows Malawi demolishing Algeria 3-0 in their opening group game, and Ivory Coast being held to a goalless draw against lowly Burkina Faso. While Malawi’s result will reassure those who made cocksure predictions about the ease with which England will win their group games at the World Cup (listen to my supremely confident colleagues on the first episode of The Football Basement podcast for evidence of this), it certainly proves that the African nations are constantly getting stronger and more competitive as a group, rather than the old days when one or two spectacular teams massively outshined the rest. Having said this, the favourites must surely remain the likes of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon – though they’ll likely have to live up to their high billing to go all the way in the tournament.

So hopefully the snow will melt in a couple of days, Chelsea will make up their extra match and I’ll be safely ensconced in the pub watching an Ivory Coast v Ghana semi-final in a couple of weeks time. The winter can’t be all bad, can it?