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.

Manchester United and Qatar: The world must listen

MANCHESTER United is arguably the biggest football club in Britain, possibly the world and it is up for sale. There should be a string of would-be buyers eager to revive the fortunes of the club and leverage its enormous financial potential. It has been relatively quiet, but one assumes that as the February 17 deadline for offers approaches, there will be a flurry of activity and a few games of cat and mouse to be played. 

Now, we hear that Qatar is interested in Manchester United, the World Cup host that continues to crave credibility, even though the state’s reputation around human rights has changed little. Nobody did too much about this other than promise “platforms would be used” to send a message, but ultimately, this amounted to next to nothing, because Qatar didn’t permit it. Concerns about Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United has been allowed to evaporate, just as everyone has resumed their post-World Cup business as usual as if Qatar never happened. Now, whenever a club comes up for sale, they appear to look towards the middle east for their salvation. The simple truth is nobody has any money or appetite apart from gulf states and some US investors. 

Is Qatar really interested? Or have they emerged with a “possible” bid to stir-up investor interest and drive the price? It is clear this type of posturing and manipulation is creeping into sport, be it bogus interest in a player by an elite club, agents encouraging player unrest to get a move mid-contract or ownership plays. Is this merely one of those occasions?

Qatar, of course, already owns Paris Saint-Germain and has a stake in Portugal’s SC Braga. It would be a complex transaction should they really want to buy Manchester United. But Qatar has various vehicles it could use within the Qatar Investment Authority’s (QIA) arsenal such as Qatar National Bank, who could front the bid. QIA is the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar which funds Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), the owner of PSG. It has US$ 450 billion of assets under management.

Qatar’s influence on football is growing and they already have a seat on the UEFA executive committee in the form of PSG’s Nasser al-Khelaifi, who was heartily and emotionally thanked by UEFA President Mr. Ceferin for steering his club away from the European Super League project. At best, QSI could only take a minority stake in Manchester United, but as everyone in business knows, there are ways and means if you are allowed to finesse a deal.

Manchester United fans should be very concerned about this development, but will they just be so relieved to get rid of the Glazer family that they will welcome any new owner with open arms and ignore the backdrop? That appears to have happened elsewhere in football.

Plenty of the club’s fans were enthused by the prospect of INEOS owner Jim Ratcliffe taking the club over as they believe he would be more of a benefactor rather than investor. Nobody really knows that. Any white knight would possibly be fronting a consortium as the price being asked – the Glazers want £ 6 billion – makes it nigh on impossible for an individual to acquire the club. If that would be the case, then the chance of “sugar daddy” ownership is almost impossible. The price may not be as much as that, indeed Qatar are supposedly looking at £ 4.5 billion, but there will never be another Abramovich, the world has become far more complicated since 2003 when he bought Chelsea.

Should Qatar manage to succeed, then it would also be another twist in the multi-club ownership model. Javier Tebas of La Liga: “Multi-club ownership is already a complicated topic, but it becomes even more complex when a state owns multiple clubs. It would not be good for European football.”

As mentioned, the deadline for offers is still a week away, so the Qatar saga is only just beginning. Whether it is a genuine interest or if it is designed to “flush out” other investors remains to be seen. It is quite likely that things will become even more complicated than they already seems.