Two legs good – the appeal of EFL Cup semi-finals

THERE HAVE been some complaints about the two-legged format of the League Cup semi-finals, that they are adding to an already crowded fixture schedule. The EFL should resist any attempt to scrap this structure because the inevitable alternative would be to take the last four to Wembley, a venue that is already overused and devalued by the constant desire to hold any game of importance at what is a fairly inhospitable location.

Two legs can be an interesting arrangement, giving smaller clubs the chance to pull off a shock result on their own ground and also raising the possibility of two outstanding games between top teams. This is a unique dynamic in English football that would normally only be applied to European knockout stages. The chance of a team overcoming a first leg deficit adds to the excitement and there’s also less prospect of a semi-final drifting off into extra time and the dreaded penalty shoot-out.

It is nonsense to blame fixture congestion on the extra game a two-legged semi-final creates; clubs are quite happy to go off on mid-season jaunts and play friendlies, eager to enter into meaningless summer competitions designed to generate cash and satisfy sponsors and broadcasters in Asia and the US. The EFL Cup has a European place as its reward and is also part of the heritage of the English game. It may have passed its peak years, but as a route into a UEFA competition, it has to be taken seriously.

The semi-finals, over the decades, have provided some memorable games and fairy-tale stories. When the games are local derbies, they are even better. In 1968-69, Arsenal reached a second successive Football League Cup final after beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 on aggregate with an injury time winner. Swindon, the eventually winner, came through a three-game semi-final against first division Burnley in a dramatic tie. A year later, the two Manchester clubs fought out a classic, with City winning 4-3 on aggregate to emphasise the local shift in power.

The 1971-72 League Cup had just about the most irresistible set of semi-finals; Chelsea overcame holders Tottenham 5-4 on aggregate, thanks to a last minute soft goal from Alan Hudson, and Stoke City eventually beat West Ham 3-2 at Old Trafford after four meetings, with Bobby Moore taking over in goal after the Hammers’ keeper, Bobby Ferguson, was injured. Although three London clubs were in the semi-final, Stoke won the cup, their first ever trophy.

Another classic local derby saw Arsenal win the 1987 semi-final against Spurs, a tie that went to three games and showed the Gunners’ character in repeatedly coming from behind. Finally, after 301 minutes of a pulsating series, David Rocastle scored the winning goal after substitute Ian Allinson had equalised Clive Allen’s opener for Tottenham. Arsenal went on to win the cup, beating Liverpool 2-1 with two goals from Charlie Nicholas.

A big defeat in the first leg can mean one of two things – a dramatic comeback or no chance whatsoever in the second game. In 1990, Oldham Athletic went into a 4-0 first half lead against West Ham United and by the end of the game, the Hammers’ had sustained a 6-0 mauling on the Latics’ artificial pitch. West Ham won the second leg 3-0, but they could not close the substantial gap. West Ham, back in 1965-66, had inflicted upon Cardiff City a 10-3 semi-final humbling, now they knew what a crushing semi-final defeat felt like.

Tottenham produced a stunning second leg turnaround in 2002 when they beat Chelsea 5-1 at White Hart Lane after the Blues had won the first meeting 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. Spurs, managed by former Chelsea boss Glenn Hoddle, swamped their opponents, whose only goal came from the forgotten Mikkel Forssell in the 90th minute.

There’s not been many sensations in recent times, although Burton Albion received a 9-0 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in 2018-19. City, who have dominated the competition over the past eight years, went out to Southampton this season and the Saints will now face Newcastle United in the semi-finals. Nottingham Forest, who have an impressive history in the competition, are playing Manchester United. On the face of it, Southampton and Forest are the underdogs, but the two-legs give them a chance of upsetting the form book. It should make for two riveting semi-final pairings.

What future for the EFL Cup?

EVER SINCE the League Cup was introduced, its future has never felt totally secure. Back in the 1960s, some teams declined to enter, some managers complained about fixture congestion, other clubs damaged the credibility of the competition by fielding scratch sides and now, clubs playing in Europe effectively get seeded. There’s no denying the League Cup will always play second fiddle to the FA Cup, but in today’s environment, because of the overwhelming focus on the Premier, the competition now almost seems like an inconvenience to some clubs.

However, anyone who believes the League Cup is not taken seriously by the top clubs should take a look at the participants in recent finals. In six of the last 10, two teams from the so-called “big six” have met in the final. For seven of the last eight, the cup has been won by Manchester clubs and over 20 years, the elite half dozen have won 15. Not interested? Think again.

The issue is that the biggest clubs do not need to field their strongest teams to win the cup, indeed you could argue that the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea could actually field below-strength sides in the league and still make a challenge. 

This year’s last four features three London clubs, only the fourth time this has happened (1971-72, 2006-07 and 2007-08 are the others). In theory, the cup should be won by a side from the capital, but in 1972 when Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham made the semi-finals, the eventual winner was unfancied Stoke City! 

There will be no shortage of motivation from at least two of the three Londoners, Tottenham and Arsenal are both eager to win anything at the moment, especially Spurs, who don’t need any reminding that their last trophy was in 2008 and was the Football League Cup. Chelsea will stand in their way in the semi-final, a team that has lost its early season verve and is suffering from illness and injury. How they could do with some of the many players they have out of loan across Europe.

Arsenal will meet Liverpool in the other semi-final. Jürgen Klopp’s side will start as favourites, but you sense the amiable German is tiring a little of the English system and its somewhat intense fixture programme. A North London derby at Wembley could be the outcome of two semi-finals in which two clubs may have other priorities.

But are people like Thomas Tuchel and Jürgen Klopp justified in questioning the number of games being played? The xenophobes would say that foreign managers knew the score when they arrived in England, but if too many games breeds fatigue and below-par performances, are they actually harming the quality of the product on offer? Let’s not forget that coaches like Tuchel and Klopp are, in their own way, perfectionists.

The Football League Cup may be superfluous in the modern game, but they are surely more worthwhile than the expensive overseas tours some clubs embark on in order to expand their global brand. One way to ease the situation could be to reduce the size of the divisions in England, the Premier/EFL constitution is still too weighty, even though some would argue it is the essence of English football, the body of 92. However, everyone has been talking about too much football since the 1960s and lo and behold, we now have more games now than they ever did in the pre-television era. At all levels, there seems to be a reluctance to reduce leagues due to a loss of income, yet is there not an argument that less football makes the game more unique and therefore, attendances could, feasibly, increase?

One of the League Cup’s charms is the two-legged semi-final, although this format also has its critics. But the alternative is yet another two games at Wembley, which would bring in the crowds – and money – but take away a unique aspect of the competition.

Traditionalists will, surely, hope the League Cup survives. The competition, in 2018-19 (the last time normal conditions existed), drew an average gate of around 14,000 – that was higher than the FA Cup (round one to final). The competition still has substance.