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The Curious Case of the Carling Cup 2011/12

Sunday 4th December 2011
Manchester City, Liverpool, Cardiff and Crystal Palace this week booked their places in the semi-finals of this season's Carling Cup. The trophy is traditionally the third most prestigious of English domestic silverware, and the big clubs certainly still prioritise it that way. The big clubs also still play their second string players or youngsters in this competition, and those who are participating in Europe place the League Cup fourth in their wish list of success. Since 2000 the likes of Leicester, Blackburn, Middlesbrough and Birmingham have won the League Cup. Could Crystal Palace or Cardiff add their name to the list of winners in 2012?

Manchester United were sent tumbling out of the competition as they were humbled at Old Trafford by Palace's shocking 2-1 extra-time victory. Sir Alex Ferguson mentioned his fondness of the Carling Cup in his programme notes and sent out a team he expected to get the job done featuring eight internationals. The South Londoners hadn't scored a goal in five matches going into this one, and that makes Darren Ambrose's 65th minute 35-yard screamer all the more remarkable. I wonder if it crossed Fergie's mind about 10 minutes in that he should've had Wayne Rooney or Javier Hernandez on the pitch, or at least available from the bench, to combat their fired-up Championship opponents. As it was, the young strike-force of Federico Macheda and Mame Diouf felt the full force of Old Trafford expectation and fell short of seeing off Palace. The options to come off the bench were all young as well, with Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba failing to impress on this occasion. Macheda won and scored the penalty that got United back in it just four minutes after Ambrose's thunderbolt. Antonio Valencia's constant crossing into the box looked United's best hope of creating the chance that would see them  force penalties, after Glenn Murray's header put Palace in front in the eighth minute of extra-time. Sir Alex apologised to the supporters saying it was not a Manchester United performance, however full credit must go to Crystal Palace; a team who decided to go for it, who took the game to United and got their reward. Dougie Freedman didn't weaken his side in any way and Palace can now take the confidence of beating United into their Championship campaign while they can look forward to a cup semi-final in the New Year.

Steve Kean said he regretted saying that his Blackburn side had ‘forfeited going through' and that he meant to say Rovers had forfeited the chance of taking another step towards a Wembley final. Kean left out Michel Salgado, Chris Samba and Matin Olsson as he plans for them to be fit to play in Rovers' home game against Swansea this weekend, while Jason Roberts and Yakubu began the match on the bench. Blackburn's loss is Cardiff's gain and the Welsh side fully deserved their 2-0 win on Tuesday. If I was Blackburn manager, I would look at it this way; winning games is the best way to fuel confidence. If Rovers had won in the Carling Cup they could have then built a winning mentality to take into their league matches, while also giving their fans a semi-final to look forward to. What good does losing to a team the division below you do for a club who look set to be involved in the relegation scrap come the end of the season? Whether Kean's decision was the right one will be judged solely on whether Blackburn stay up. As for Cardiff, their supporters can now dream of a return to Wembley for the first time since the 2010 Championship Play-Off Final.

Tuesday's match between Chelsea and Liverpool is a key example of how the Carling Cup could change if managers start thinking differently. Andre Villas-Boas's Blues faced Liverpool at Stamford Bridge for the second time in nine days. Kenny Dalglish's Reds won the league tie 2-1, and while five of the Liverpool starting 11 from that afternoon started on Tuesday evening, only three of the Chelsea 11 began both matches. Dalglish's stronger side could be explained by the fact that Liverpool are not in European competition this year and so perhaps don't have as much reason to rest players as Villas-Boas's Chelsea.

After losing in the league just days earlier, Villas-Boas would have known all about the threat Liverpool posed. He chose to leave out Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Ramires, Mata and Drogba; all key men who could've prevented Chelsea losing 2-0 and exiting the competition. Liverpool left out star men as well in Johnson, Adam, Downing, Kuyt and Suarez. However, there was still enough of a goal-scoring threat through Maxi Rodriguez, Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy. Carroll could even afford to miss a first half penalty as Dalglish masterminded a win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge for the third time in 2011.

Perhaps Villas-Boas has his mind on the Champions League showdown with Valencia on Tuesday, where the Blues must win or achieve a goalless draw to progress to the last 16. Perhaps he didn't want to win the Carling Cup; the first trophy Jose Mourinho won as Chelsea boss; because he insists he is different from The Special One.  If Chelsea fail to get a result against Valencia, the pressure will well and truly fall on AVB's head. The Blues currently trail Manchester City by 10 points and on current form I can't see them winning the title. If they don't get the result they need against Valencia, it will be a mighty shock to the system. The Champions League is the Holy Grail for owner Roman Abramovich; the Europa League would be uncertain territory and not where he envisaged the club would be after shelling out £13 million to attain Villas-Boas from Porto.

All of this amounts to why a place in the Carling Cup semi-finals would make life a whole lot easier for the Chelsea manager. Villas-Boas put his faith in youngsters Bertrand, McEeachran, Romeu and Lukaka but the risk didn't deliver. A win would've built confidence in the squad and they would still be in contention for the first silverware of the season. Now Chelsea face a make-or-break Champions League game while they can't afford to drop any more league points. The pressure could all get too much for the inexperienced 33-year-old but I can't see AVB walking away. If results get any worse, the Portuguese manager may not be given the time so many believe Abramovich should give him, and the Russian might bite the bullet and bring back his buddy Guus Hiddink.

It is easy to see why the Carling Cup should be taken seriously by Arsenal and Manchester City. Arsene Wenger's Arsenal have not won a trophy since the 2005 FA Cup while Manchester City are expected to compete in every competition due to the riches they have spent on their squad. Tuesday's game was a drab affair and the teams were only separated by Sergio Aguero's 83rd minute winner. Both sides rested several first choice players and it was substitute Aguero who made the difference. The Argentinean was brought on for the injured Aleksander Kolarov in the 32nd minute as City switched formation to match the Gunners' 4-4-2. Wenger has consistently given his young players a chance in this competition and should be commended for this, but if he had played Theo Walcott and red-hot Robin van Persie then the result might have been different. When it gets to this stage of the competition and you are playing one of the best teams you must give yourself the best chance by naming a strong 11.

Consider the current clubs at the top of the Barclays Premier League. We had become accustomed to talking about the Big Four but the rapid development of Tottenham and Manchester City means we now have to give serious contemplation to a Big Six. I expect one of the Manchester clubs to win the title this year, but who will finish in the other two Champions League spots is anyone's guess at the moment.

Due to this the big clubs might start to look at the Carling Cup differently, simply because they have to. In other words, because there are more competitors, clubs who are expected to be successful may have to take the Carling Cup more seriously as their owners and supporters demand glory. I still expect the big clubs to give their reserves and young players a game in the cup, especially against weaker opposition, however when it comes down to it they will surely begin to play strong 11s when faced with one of their rivals. The smaller clubs might also reach the latter stages less and less in the near future because of the needs of the big boys.

So, after the United-Palace game we were given the draw we wanted; the two Championship clubs were kept apart meaning one of them is guaranteed a place in the Wembley final. For me the high point of the Carling Cup in recent years was the two-legged semi-final between Manchester United and Manchester City in 2010 which was fuelled by the war of words between Gary Neville and Carlos Tevez. Liverpool will surely be happy to face City over two legs where they might fancy their chances of knocking out Roberto Mancini's men more than facing them in the final. For the teams left in the competition, the Carling Cup is definitely serious business this season. Liverpool have not won a trophy since the 2006 FA Cup which they won at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. The last time the Reds played at Wembley was in 1996 where they lost the FA Cup Final to Manchester United. What chance of Liverpool versus City throwing up a semi-final cracker just like the Manchester derby of 2010?

There remains a chance of a fairy-tale victor of the 2011/12 Carling Cup thanks to Cardiff and Crystal Palace. Depending on what the teams who have been eliminated this week; Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea; end up winning this season, clubs might change their approach to the Carling Cup next year. But if they treat it the same, I won't be bothered as it means we are more likely to witness drama similar to Palace's Old Trafford triumph on Wednesday again.
Scott Todd

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