LONDON – The League Cup is like a relative you do not get on with, but still have to ask to Christmas lunch. You would rather they were not there, but there is nothing you can do about it. And when they arrive you do little to make them feel wanted.
Premier League clubs would be far happier if the Capital One Cup did not exist. It is no more than an intrusion into the real thing, “league football,” and they make it blindingly obvious that they take part only because the rules state they must. Going out of the competition is almost reason for celebration; advancing is a burden. Another unwanted fixture awaits.
Most Premier League clubs can realistically win only two trophies each season, the Capital One Cup and the F.A. Cup. Only three or four heavyweights contest the title or have their sights on a run in the Champions League. For the rest, it’s the domestic cups or nothing.
They would prefer nothing.
Despite the carrot of a Europa League place for the winners, first-team players are rested for the midweek exhaustions of the Capital One Cup to keep them fresh for the weekend’s league games. Tottenham, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich and Hull made 11 changes for the third-round ties from their previous league matches. Arsenal made 10, six is par for the course.
Of course, playing in the Europa League is Europe’s equivalent of the Capital One Cup, a booby prize that sees English clubs field weakened teams to keep the first XI in cotton wool ahead of the Sunday Premier League matches. Finishing fifth or sixth usually means winning a Europa League place, too. There are clubs who would rather end up seventh and miss out on an unwanted European adventure.
Only four different clubs have won the Premier League since Blackburn lifted the title in 1995. The F.A. Cup may have lost its magic, but that has become the property of top four clubs in the past 20 years. On the other hand, there have been 12 different winners of the League Cup.
If you are a West Ham or a Stoke City, this is the competition for you, but half of the Premier League clubs are only concerned with preserving their status in football’s land of milk and honey. A manager won’t be sacked for not winning a cup, but relegation will see him on his bike.
Alan Pardew’s future as Newcastle manager is an ongoing matter of speculation, he is usually one defeat from getting sacked. Despite reaching the last 16 of the Capital One Cup, Pardew said: “Perhaps, at board level, we say what other boards don’t say in that the Premier League is the be all and end all because of the TV money, you cannot hide from that.”
Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert admitted clubs “could do without the distractions of domestic cups, yet the cynicism of clubs is not shared by the fans who see the potential of a memorable day out at Wembley tossed in the dustbin because only the Premier League matters to those who they follow.
Yes, it can be fun seeing a few of the next generation given their chance in the Capital One Cup. It also serves as a competition where players coming back from injury can improve their match fitness.
English football is brainwashed into believing players cannot play two games a week. The more managers say this, the more players will believe it. Supporters accept they will see shadow sides competing under the banner of their clubs.
It is the ugly duckling of domestic competitions that will never turn into a beautiful cup.
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THIS WEEKEND, two out-of-form teams meet, both desperate for a win to get their season back on track. It is an unusual scenario for the Merseyside derby between Liverpool (11th) and Everton (14th), which seems unlikely to end 0-0.
Everton has conceded the most Premier League goals this season — 13 in five games, while Liverpool’s eight is double the number 19th-place Burnley has allowed.
Liverpool’s joy at qualifying for the Champions League has been replaced by the frustration of hitting top form only once so far, the 3-0 victory at Tottenham. The loss of Luis Suarez, both as a goalscorer and a leader on the pitch, has been greater than feared and three defeats in five league games have highlighted defensive weaknesses that Brendan Rodgers must correct. Whichever two center-backs he selects from Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren have yet to gel while goalkeeper Simon Mignolet continues to have the worry beads on red alert.
Daniel Sturridge, 36 goals in 52 appearances for Liverpool, may be fit to play, otherwise Mario Balotelli, whose presence has Reds fans scratching their heads, will lead the line. “Daniel responds well to treatment,” said Rodgers who admitted Liverpool’s game had been “a bit broken” because of new players settling in.
“He is near to fitness. If he doesn’t make Saturday, he won’t be far away after that.”
Steven Gerrard’s post-World Cup form has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been poor, but the good news for Liverpool is that it has lost only one of the last 15 derbies in the league, with Everton failing to win at Anfield since 1999.
Everton was thumped 3-0 by Swansea in the Capital One Cup with Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and particularly Tim Howard also affected by post-Brazil blues.
The other game where local bragging rights are at stake is Arsenal vs. Tottenham, Arsene Wenger’s side wanting to extend its home superiority over its neighbors which stands at one defeat in the last 21 games.
Both sides have been inconsistent to date, Arsenal’s defense unable to stop leaking goals from set-pieces with Spurs’ attack lacking a cutting edge. It will be Mauricio Pochettino’s first derby as Spurs manager and he knows a win at the Emirates would lift much of the pressure off him.
One player desperate to play some part in the match is Arsenal midfielder Abou Diaby. Records are not kept for the most injured player, but it is difficult to look further than Diaby who joined the Gunners from Auxerre in January 2006 .
Over the past seven seasons the France international has sustained 36 separate injuries. Of a possible 327 Premier League matches, Diaby has made 92 appearances, 32 as a substitute. Of Arsenal’s last 157 Premier League games, he had played in 42.
He made his first Arsenal start in 556 days in the Capital One Cup defeat by Southampton on Tuesday, lasting 67 minutes.
“He is a giant, mentally,” said Arsene Wenger. “To do what he has done, coming back every time from the severe injuries he has sustained, deserves a lot of respect.”
While no player wants to be injured, surely none in recent times has been paid as much to recover from so many layoffs.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5