The League Cup may have become the runt of English football’s prize litter – especially while the biggest clubs fight on other fronts, almost without exception viewed as more coveted than the Carabao – but for the first time in a decade, the first trophy of the domestic season features four clubs at the semi-final stage all desperate to get their hands on it.
Manchester City have made the Carabao Cup their own in recent years, winning it six times in nine years. Liverpool are the current holders, while City’s dominance was interrupted briefly by Manchester United in 2017 and Chelsea in 2015.
Not since 2013, when Swansea swept aside Bradford City to claim their first major trophy, has the winner truly cherished the League Cup. Since the Bantams and Swans’ big day out, the Carabao has been claimed and almost immediately shoved in a cupboard while the victors continued their pursuit of shinier pots. That squad rotation has become a factor in actual finals illustrates just how dimly it has been viewed. Such has been their authority in this competition, you can perhaps understand the apathy at City.
This year, though, the League Cup is likely to highlight the season for Wembley’s victor, be it Manchester United, Newcastle, Nottingham Forest or Southampton.
All four semi-finalists have other things on their mind, of course. The two Uniteds are keen to stay the course on their way to the Champions League while Forest and Saints fret over the prospect of relegation. But ahead of the first legs, with the returns to come next week, there is no sense of any club prioritising the Premier League.
In Newcastle’s case, perhaps the opposite is true. Eddie Howe played his strongest possible side in the quarter-final win over Leicester, with the Toon Army’s wall of scarves an indication of their desire for a trip to Wembley. Despite their dizzying position in the Premier League table, that 2-0 triumph over the Foxes was arguably the most prestigious occasion of the Magpies’ season so far. Certainly if we’re only considering the post-World Cup period.
Of course, a place in next season’s Champions League would be see Newcastle arrive at one of their destinations under the Saudi owners ahead of schedule, but for those there before the takeover, the significance of a cup triumph cannot be overstated. Nobody below retirement age has seen the Magpies win a major honour. And no Newcastle fan has visited the ‘new’ Wembley with their team since the old one was bulldozed.
Perhaps no team would ever again cherish the Carabao Cup more than Newcastle might if Howe takes them all the way this term. Doing so would elevate the manager to the kind of reverence currently only reserved for Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson. Deities though they may be, neither took a trophy back to Toon.
In Newcastle’s way stand Southampton and their ambitions to end their own drought. Not since Bobby Stokes went under the linesman’s radar in the 1976 FA Cup final have they lifted silverware. Saints, perhaps, are the semi-final competitor most conflicted given their predicament at the foot of the Premier League. Which makes them most in need of a morale boost as we approach business time. Beating Manchester City in the quarter-finals was a shot in the arm; knocking out Newcastle and going back to Wembley could have a huge, intangible effect on their survival hopes.
The last time Saints were in a final was only six years ago when they were beaten by Zlatan and Manchester United. Then, Jose Mourinho counted the Community Shield as part of United’s Diet Treble, and similarly now, the Red Devils can’t afford to be sniffy about prizes since they haven’t claimed any since Mourinho’s departure.
For a club like United, one that has spent roughly a gazillion pounds in the meantime, six years is far too long without the sustenance of silverware. Similar to Newcastle, doubtless United’s accountants would swap a day of Carabao craic for at least three months in the Champions League next season. But, also like Newcastle, there’s no reason United can’t have both. Erik ten Hag needs this, just as Jose did.
Steve Cooper would dearly love it too. Nottingham Forest have a rich history in the League Cup, dating back to Brian Clough’s reign. Cooper can’t hope to emulate Clough’s achievements, unless he somehow gets Forest into the Champions League and wins it. Twice. Even then, he wouldn’t be the first. But more Wembley glory after their play-off final win last May would certainly cement his legacy as the most influential manager since Clough.
That we have two almost identical semis, with Prem strugglers hosting top-four contenders first before going to the bigger boys next week, takes none of the fizz out of the Carabao Cup final four. Manchester United versus Newcastle at Wembley next month would doubtless provide a grander spectacle but any side that makes it through the semis will relish a final that for the first time in a 10 years isn’t viewed as a distraction of sorts.
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