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The League Cup has always played as an understudy to the F.A Cup, but whilst it provides many less giant killings than its counterpart by only allowing Football League teams to enter, hence the name, it does offer the opportunity of European competition to its winners. Something the Birmingham players will no doubt have in the back of their minds on Sunday.
Ten years ago, Birmingham reached the same stage of the competition, eventually losing via a marathon penalty shoot-out to Liverpool. This being the last time a second-tier side has reached the final. So with a decade past since a ‘League’ team has reached the final of the League Cup, let alone win it, it’s little wonder many are beginning to show increasing disinterest towards the competition.
Ironically, the other side in this weekend’s final, are partly to blame for the demise of the tournament. For many of the last ten years in question, Arsenal have used the competition as an opportunity to rest first team players, instead making use of both their reserve and youth squads. This season has been a little different, with increasing pressure on the club to win a trophy, Wenger has more often than not fielded a strong, if not his strongest side. However, Wenger’s former approach to the competition has stuck, and many other Premier League teams, even those with very little chance of achieving any other silverware, continue to field weakened sides.
Surely then this must have opened up the competition to those in the lower divisions, and those Premier League sides taking the competition seriously? Apparently not. Of the last twenty League Cup finalists, only six have not been Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham. So not only are the top teams fielding weakened sides, but they’re overwhelmingly winning the competition. It can be argued that if these sides didn’t field weakened teams they would reach finals with even more regularity, maybe so, but it would certainly boost the profile of the tournament once again, and perhaps go as far as eradicating the saying “It’s only the Carling Cup”.
But let’s face it, in an age when winning the European Cup is rewarded with the princely sum of around 7 Million Euros, are the top teams ever going to want to field their best side, or for that matter be able to? The increasing over-congestion of fixtures in the British season means that top sides can be expected to play with much more regularity than their European counterparts, many of whom are gifted the luxury of a winter break and not competing in a secondary cup competition.
Options then seem sparse. Perhaps the most logical would be to not invite teams involved in Europe to partake, opening up the tournament, increasing competition and incentivising a cup run. But this seems highly unlikely, the Europa League position would no doubt be withdrawn by UEFA, sponsorship would undoubtedly dwindle and ultimately, if only for the final few games, the quality of football would be watered down.
However, on Sunday, for 90 minutes at least, the role of the League Cup will not be questioned. Both sets of players will want to win, but one may just have their minds somewhere else. Ultimately, I’m not sure there is a solution for the demise of this historic competition. But I hope there is.