EFL Cup Final:  Two clubs desperate for some recognition

IN THIS age of Premier League saturation, it is quite easy for the EFL (Football League) Cup to be overlooked, but for most clubs, it represents the best avenue to success. This year, for the 10th year running, the final is an all-Premier League affair, with one of the “big six” clubs, Manchester United, aiming to win the cup for the sixth time, and Newcastle United hoping to lift their first trophy of any sort since 1969.

If United were to win, it would cap a satisfactory first season for coach Erik Ten Hag, while a victory for the Toon would kick-start a new era for the club under their Saudi Arabian ownership. You could argue this final has two clubs eager to convince the football world they mean business once more; even though Manchester United won two trophies in 2017, the past six years have been frustrating for a club that was accustomed to annual silverware under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Newcastle United have not instantly become world beaters since they were bought by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, PIF. They have made solid progress and have invested in players and their side certainly has the potential to improve, but they need to score more goals, even though they have conceded only 15 in the Premier and kept 12 clean sheets. In their EFL Cup run, their defence has been breached just twice and they have played four Premier League teams in that run, including Palace, Bournemouth, Leicester and Southampton.

Their top marksman at the moment is the exciting Miguel Almirón, who has improved significantly in 2022-23 and is a player Manchester United will have to watch closely in the final. Nick Pope, their goalkeeper, has performed well since arriving at St. James’ Park, but he will miss the final through suspension. The club spent heavily (£63 million) on Real Sociedad’s Swedish striker Alexander Isak, but he has been hampered by injury since arriving.

Newcastle have only been beaten twice in the Premier, but they have drawn 11 of their 23 games, six of which have been goalless. Although the Geordie fans are delighted at their progress since Eddie Howe became coach, there are concerns that their lack of goals could cost them a place in the top four. They have not been at their best since the turn of the year and have won just one Premier League game in six and were surprisingly knocked out of the FA Cup by League One Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough in the third round.

Manchester United seem a different and happier club since they released Cristiano Ronaldo, and it is no coincidence Marcus Rashford seems to have flourished. At 25, it is now or never for Rashford in terms of fulfilling his enormous promise, but he has scored a best-ever 24 goals and has been instrumental in the revival of United under Ten Hag.

United’s record against the top clubs in the Premier has improved and they have beaten Liverpool,  Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City. They have lost at Arsenal, rather unluckily, and lost 6-3 at City earlier in the campaign, a result that truly flattered them. From their early worries and difficulty with Ronaldo, they have developed into Champions League contenders and they are one of the favourites for the UEFA Europa League. They face their third Spanish side this season in the last 16, Real Betis, after meeting Real Sociedad and Barcelona already in the competition. Of the two EFL Cup finalists, Manchester United have the better recent form.

Those that claim the Premier League clubs are not interested in the EFL Cup have clearly not examined the performance of the top clubs; in the past six years, the 48 quarter-final places have been filled by 39 Premier clubs, four Championship, four league one and one league two. And since the Premier League began, the big six clubs have won 22 of the 30 competitions. It may not figure at the top of their priorities, but given the Premier title is out of reach for most clubs and European football is the reward for winning the EFL Cup, there is no reason for universal apathy. Furthermore, the crowds are up on previous years, an average of 15,948 in 2022-23 (since the first round). 

For Manchester United and Newcastle United fans, the prospect of winning some silverware will make the EFL, albeit temporarily, the most important footballing trinket in the world this weekend.

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.