Tom Oldfield

There was a time when the Premier League big boys felt the League Cup was only fit for youngsters and fringe players – but that time has largely been and gone.
The four Carling Cup semi-finalists were confirmed this week and, in the process, the competition’s profile shot up another notch. Holders Manchester United fought off a strong Tottenham side at Old Trafford, Aston Villa outmuscled Portsmouth, a vibrant Manchester City first team taught the Arsenal youngsters a lesson and Blackburn knocked out Chelsea on penalties. From these midweek quarter finals, we were reminded that the Carling Cup definitely matters.
The competition has benefited hugely from the level of competition among the Premier League’s big four. With first Chelsea and then Manchester United enjoying mini-spells of dominance, suddenly the “lesser” prizes increased in value.
It is a widely accepted fact that the FA Cup and Carling Cup are inferior to the Premier League, which arguably is in turn inferior to the glamour of the Champions League. But, at the same time, the big clubs have realised that the title is not the be all and end all. Winning a cup competition can still salvage something from a season.
The strength this season of Barcelona and Real Madrid will make it tough for an English club to win the Champions League. Chelsea and Manchester United will consider themselves on a par with the Spanish giants but it is not clear cut. Therefore, with only one team able to conquer Europe and one able to win the Premier League, it is simple mathematics to understand that a number of high profile teams will have to look elsewhere for silverware. There are not enough “major” trophies to go round.
And this is where the Carling Cup, like the FA Cup, offers a lifeline.
One look at the last few seasons shows a clear shift in emphasis. Man Utd have won the past three league titles but still made sure of the Carling Cup last season. Chelsea reached the final in 2007 and 2008 while Sir Alex Ferguson’s side lifted the trophy in 2006, deflecting attention from missing out on the title.

Compare that to earlier this decade. Back in 2002, Blackburn lifted what was then the Worthington Cup with a victory over Tottenham. Middlesbrough enjoyed success in 2004, beating Bolton in the final. The League Cup could hardly have been considered glamorous in those days. Now there are more hungry teams fighting for the prizes.
And all this makes it more and more confusing to see Arsene Wenger ignoring the chance to compete for Carling Cup glory. Wenger continues to throw his youngsters into the fray and stands by his decision but that stance is looking rather foolish as the club’s trophy drought drags on. He told reporters this week: ‘We have not won a trophy since 2005 but I don’t concede that if we win the Carling Cup we can then have a parade with the trophy. It is a competition for our young players. To play the quarter-final of the Champions League, or the semi-final or final, is 10 times more difficult than to win the Carling Cup.’
That is all well and good but the Gunners do not seem equipped to win the Champions League, or the Premier League for that matter. Humbled by Man Utd in last year’s semi-final, Arsenal are unlikely to go any further this season with a revamped Real Madrid on the scene along with Man Utd, Chelsea and Barcelona. Wenger, for all the stylish football he has brought to England, cannot afford to be so picky. The defeat to Chelsea showed just how far the Gunners need to improve.
But Wenger is an exception. Carlo Ancelotti cared enough about the Carling Cup to throw Didier Drogba into the action at half-time at Ewood Park and play Joe Cole, John Obi Mikel and Michael Ballack from the start. Mark Hughes picked a star-studded City line-up as did Tottenham at Old Trafford. Managers know that every piece of silverware needs to be respected in this day and age.
Now fans can look forward to a couple of gripping semi-finals. Aston Villa against Blackburn should be a pulsating scrap in itself but all eyes will be on Manchester where City and United will clash over two potentially-titanic legs for a place in the final. It will be interesting to see the strength of the line-ups when the Carling Cup returns in January
Expect to see Ferguson throw more of his big names into the side for the semi-final in order to keep his ‘noisy neighbours’ quiet. The winner of that semi-final should go on to lift the trophy and earn the extra security that comes from having one trophy already safely in the cabinet.


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