Capital One Cup enjoying a deserved revival

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination,” the late John Lennon once said.

For years, the League Cup seemed intent to disprove the former Beatle’s statement, for the reality of the tournament left almost nothing to imagination, with attendances plummeting and clubs fielding their reserves sides, the League Cup had almost become an annoyance rather than a trophy worth challenging for.

Partly due to a profile that historically had always been lower than those of FA Cup and Premier League and partly due to the limited financial rewards it offers – the winners of the Capital One Cup pocket £100,000 while the team lifting the FA Cup trousers £2m – the future of English football’s second cup seemed doomed.

Granted, fans would still turn out in large numbers for the finals – in the last 15 years, only the 2006 final between Manchester United and Wigan failed to reach 70,000 spectators – but the rest earlier stages of the competition almost went by unnoticed.

Over the last couple of seasons, however, the League Cup has enjoyed the sort of revival the FA Cup could do with.

After four consecutive finals featuring Premier League heavyweights – Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs reached two finals each between 2007 and 2010 – the underdogs have risen to the challenge, with Birmingham beating Arsenal in 2011, second division Cardiff City losing to Liverpool in 2012 before last season’s fairytale final between Swansea and Bradford.

While a good cup run can be vital from a financial point of view for clubs like Bradford, who averaged 16,798 spectators over their three League Cup fixtures at Valley Parade last season, Swansea and Birmingham proved taking the Capital One Cup seriously could open the doors of European football.

With small clubs rising to prominence, bigger Premier League teams consequentially have had to rise their own performances, for while the cup’s charm might be limited, the prospect of being the victim of a giantkilling appeals nobody.

Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham rotated their squads, but that still meant the likes of Juan Mata, Javier Hernandez, Stevan Jovetic, Edin Dzeko and Jermain Defoe – hardly players one would classify as reserves – were among the starters.

Furthermore, while Arsene Wenger has always considered the League Cup a ground for experiments, Jose Mourinho maintains the competition is crucial to build winning momentum, while David Moyes and Andre Villas Boas are desperate to clinch a first silverware with their respective clubs.

As far as entertainment was concerned, the fourth round could have hardly offered a tastier treat, as Jose Mourinho maintained his unbeaten record against Arsene Wenger, Newcastle forced extra time against City, while second division Leicester City overcame Fulham in a 4-3 thriller.

If that wasn’t enough, Spurs and Stoke both needed penalties – every neutral’s parameter when it comes to judge the excitement served up by a cup game – to overcome Hull and Birmingham, with both games offering a combined 12 goals.

The draw for the quarter finals looks just as exciting, with West Ham fans set to travel en masse to White Hart Lane, Chelsea and Manchester United facing potentially tricky trips to either Sunderland or Southampton and Stoke, while Leicester have been rewarded for their heroics against with a home tie against Manchester City. 

The League Cup might lack the financial appeal and the importance that characterise the Premier League and the Champions League, but after spending a couple of seasons on its death bed, English football’s other cup is alive and kicking.

After all, reality leaves a lot to imagination, doesn’t it?

 

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