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.

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