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.