As the League Cup reaches the semi-final stage, the football keeps coming.
There’s barely been a break since Christmas as either a Premier League or FA Cup game of some description has been televised over a frantic and fairly breathless festive period. This week, there’s little respite as Manchester City, Bristol City, Arsenal and Chelsea will meet respectively on consecutive nights.
Normally, the League Cup is seen as something of a second-tier competition: the underprivileged smaller relation of the FA Cup, itself falling from popularity and prestige. The maligned competition may not have moved up much further in the hearts and minds of most onlookers over the last few years, but it may well be rising in the consciousness of the various super-managers of the top six Premier League clubs.
This season is a good example. With the three of the four semi-finalists coming from the top six clubs of the Premier League, and the fourth, Bristol City, having upset Manchester United in the quarter-final, perhaps that’s as good as any evidence that the top clubs are beginning to look to this trophy as one worth winning. Indeed, Arsene Wenger even rested some of his best players in a move which backfired against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round. That was surely a move taken with Chelsea in mind.
The reasons for wanting to win are obvious. It’s a simple case of supply and demand. These days, with six clubs pulling away from the rest of the league, there are only so many chances for success. It’s a simple case of supply and demand. This season, Manchester City have all but sewn up the league title, and all that’s left to play for is a Champions League spot for those below. That means success can’t be grabbed in the league, only failure. All the league can offer is missing out on a Champions League spot – it’s important to play hard to finish in the top four, but beyond that there’s no motivation. That makes the two cup competitions important, but the same deal applies there, too: of the six favourites, only one can win each trophy, and this season Pep Guardiola’s sided will be favourites for all of them, too.
That the capitalistic nature of the Premier League would make the League Cup more valuable through some strange version of the principle of supply and demand is ironic, but probably quite welcome.
When Arsenal rested players in the FA Cup and were beaten, it wasn’t so much an affront to the tournament – one they’ve won three times in the last four years – but it was an admission that they’re taking the League Cup seriously. That’s a step forward. Every cup should be taken seriously, and when there’s merit in every competition, it’s we, the fans, who get to watch some teams trying their hardest in every game.
If Arsenal, say, are to win the League Cup this season and win nothing else, whilst also failing to finish in the Premier League’s top four, that probably won’t constitute a good season in most people’s eyes. Not beyond warranting praise for finally competing in a competition which wasn’t the FA Cup. The power of the League Cup isn’t yet that great.
But it’s surely growing. With only a few competitions up for grabs, these days, and with the pressure among the top six clubs to win a trophy every season, the League Cup does, at least, present a chance to get a trophy under the belt for an assault for bigger things later in the season.
And if the domination of the top six stays the same, and if the pressure stays the same, the League Cup could become a competition fans take seriously very soon. And if Arsene Wenger’s rotation is anything to go by, that may has already happened among managers.