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.

Real Madrid’s DNA makes them so lethal in Europe

ON paper, Manchester City should be slight favourites to beat Real Madrid in the semi-final of the UEFA Champions League. At least, that’s the narrative – City are supposedly a better team, more prolific in front of goal and they have a coach who desperately wants to win the competition he last won in 2011.

Guardiola is heavily linked to the Champions League, but he’s confronting a manager whose relationship with the cup is every bit as intimate, Carlo Ancelotti, who has won it as a coach three times to Pep’s two. Ancelotti, who himself was considered past his best, is one of only three managers to have completed three Champions League victories (Bob Paisley and Zinedine Zidane are the others). Ancelotti is seen as part of the preceding football generation to Guardiola, the coach everyone covets. While Pep is a cross between messianic techbro and Bohemian hipster, slack-jawed Carlo gives off the air of a slightly tranquilised favourite uncle. They couldn’t be more different.

The two teams have a similar win rate in 2021-22 – City’s is 72.9% and Real’s 71.7%, Guardiola and Ancelotti have the best win rates in Europe at the moment. Real have lost seven games, City one less in the league, Champions League and FA Cup. Both have lost three games in their respective leagues. The difference between the two teams is minimal. City score more goals, 120 to 96, but the assumption that Real Madrid are nothing special is a little misleading. Certainly, the current Real side seems to have plenty of stamina, thanks to the methods of fitness coach Antonio Pintus.

It has been said before, but the Champions League is not always won by the best team in Europe – Real Madrid have proved that before. Similarly, the World Cup is not always secured by the public’s favourite side. The popular belief is that City and Liverpool are the best teams in Europe and most likely they are, but there is a stubborn resistance about Real Madrid that has repeatedly sent them all the way in the Champions League. Real’s all-star squads, their European pedigree and self-belief have served some very fortunate coaches down the years. Some football experts might claim there is no such thing as footballing DNA, and the current situation at Manchester United would probably support that view, but Real Madrid do not have to be the best around to win the Champions League. It’s in their blood.

However, when Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Juventus in 2018, there was a school of thought suggesting the club had lost the very man who was capable of getting them out of tight situations. Ronaldo, in Real’s four winning campaigns, had scored 60 Champions League goals, a remarkable feat. He left after Real beat Liverpool in the 2018 final and departed Juventus three years later having failed to win the Champions League with the Italian side. It is probable that his special relationship with the competition is over, especially as his current employer is floundering and lacking direction. At Juventus, he never got beyond the quarter-final and in his second and third seasons, exited in the round of 16. Real, meanwhile, struggled at first, but have reached the last two semi-finals.

Real’s fans expect Champions League success – every knockout blow is forensically examined

Real’s fans expect success in Europe and every knockout defeat is forensically examined by the public. Managers, players and presidents have received blows to their position due to early elimination. Perhaps this air of tension has been used to Real’s advantage over the years, constantly pushing them to over-achieve. Look at how they performed against Chelsea: Karim Benzema’s four goals over two legs were right out of Ronaldo’s tie-changing portfolio. Benzema sat in the shadows to a certain extend when CR7 was at the Bernabéu and although he’s supposed to be at the veteran stage of his career, his display at Stamford Bridge was the stuff of Balon d’Or candidates.

Age is one area where City apparently have an advantage, yet according to Transfermarkt, Manchester City’s squad has an average age of 27.5 years versus Real’s 27 years 4 months. What is important in this figure is the age of some of Real’s key men – Benzema is 34, Luka Modrić 36 and Toni Kroos 32. By comparison, Kevin De Bruyne is now 30 and Riyad Mahrez is 31. Everyone has been urging Real to rebuild and there will need to be an influx of new signings or the introduction of youngsters. Transfer rumours abound constantly with Real, but it does look as though Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé and Chelsea’s Rüdiger could be heading to Madrid.

Real Madrid’s culture and their European heritage is very much about being the best on the continent, if not the world, so it would appear the club’s number one target has always been the European Cup/Champions League. The situation in Spain is such they know they can win La Liga at almost any time, so if a trophy has to be sacrificed, it is not going to be the Champions League. Real’s success in Europe, six wins since 2000, is only one less than the number of La Liga titles. Returning to Cristiano Ronaldo, he won just two championships with Real while Barcelona and Lionel Messi dominated the Spanish landscape. Perhaps it was also something to do with the composition of Real Madrid’s team, a star-packed unit that may be more equipped for the big occasion rather than the 38-game slog of the league. The ultimate cup team, maybe?

Manchester City will be aware of the task ahead of them, Guardiola has battled against Real Madrid as a player and manager throughout his entire career. As a Barcelona man, a Catalan and a rival, he knows all about Real and their place in the story of pan-European competitions.  He will also understand he’s not up against 11 players on the pitch, he’s taking on an idea, the Real Madrid concept of European domination. The hurdle may be every bit as formidable as the quality of the men wearing those famous white shirts.