On 1 March 2020, Manchester City lifted their third League Cup in a row after defeating Aston Villa 2-1 at Wembley Stadium.
The game, which was one of the last major sporting events prior to lockdown, was close in scoreline, but a complete domination in terms of performance. City had 70% possession, 22 shots, and 13 corners over the 90-minute period, and their victory seemed inevitable from the get-go.
Just nine months earlier, Pep Guardiola’s side had thumped Watford 6-0 in the 2019 FA Cup final and seemed to be hoovering up every domestic trophy England had to offer.
Fans Became Disconnected
City’s complete domination of the League Cup has, in the eyes of some fans, done a lot more harm than good to the competition. The Sky Blues’ ultra-slick football, their endless finances, and their relentless, almost robotic drive for success made the League Cup as predictable and as much of a formality as ever. Gone were the days of surprise winners and humble ‘cupsets’, and City’s dismantling of Villa, who were in the same league as them, marked a line in the sand in terms of the competition’s relevance.
Manchester City’s passionate fans would, understandably, disagree with the notion that the League Cup has never felt so disconnected, and rightly so. However, the majority of the footballing public felt as though they just couldn’t get excited for the competition anymore. Already plagued by mismatched encounters and poor scheduling, as well as its ‘low-brow’ energy drink sponsor, the 62-year-old trophy has not felt like a big deal in several years.
2022/23 A Breath Of Fresh Air
That’s why the 2022/23 League Cup campaign felt like a breath of fresh air. Regardless of who walks away with the trophy the reintroduction of Nottingham Forest, Southampton, and Newcastle United has given the competition the new life it so richly deserved.
There are caveats, of course, such as Forest’s manic spending spree and Newcastle’s own endless finances, but to say these clubs have endured a barren patch would be an understatement. Forest’s glory days under Clough are now approaching their half-century, whilst Newcastle haven’t listed a trophy since The Beatles broke up. Southampton have just one major trophy to their name, whilst Manchester United’s 6-year dry-spell has been its longest since the 1980s.
None of these clubs are scrappy underdogs by any means, but their inclusion in the final four is a step in the right direction. As much praise as Manchester City deserve, it’ll be refreshing to finally watch a League Cup final without them taking part.
Underdog Run Captures Imagination
The League Cup has too much history and has given us too many iconic moments for it to be misfiled as the FA Cup’s less successful younger sibling. There was Swansea City’s victory in 2012/13, Birmingham’s victory over Arsenal two seasons before, and Tottenham’s famous win over Chelsea in 2007/08. It may never be as prestigious as the FA Cup, but its place in English football is still very much-needed.
A good underdog cup run still has the power to capture the public imagination, especially considering how unlikely it is now with the football’s top-heavy composition. Smaller clubs dream of a giant-killing no matter how unlikely it is, and their results in the Cup have the power to change their whole season.
They also depend on the fixtures from a financial standpoint. In the 2018/19 season, then-Burton Albion manager Nigel Clough, revealed that their budget for the season was boosted by as much as 20% on the back of their cup game against Manchester United. Such a drastic increase in revenue would be unheard of in the Premier League, and it only highlights the importance of the League Cup even more.
Southampton, Newcastle, and Forest are hardly footballing paupers, but their inclusion in the final four of the 2022/23 has been a pleasant surprise. Regardless of who wins the trophy, this season has still been one of the best the League Cup has given us for quite some time.
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