Why this season’s Carabao Cup provides a refreshing opportunity for silverware for clubs outside the established elite
“We have to try to win a title, and next season it will be done.”
Those were the final words uttered by Jose Mourinho of the Amazon Prime All or Nothing documentary that chronicles the ups and downs of Tottenham Hotspur’s 2019-20 campaign.
As he is keen to remind us, Mourinho is well-versed in picking up silverware. The club that employed him just over 10 months ago, however, is not. But if Spurs are to live up to their manager’s assurance of a trophy this time around, it will most likely be a domestic cup competition. In fact, Mourinho’s side may head up a group of teams directly below the established trophy-winning elite who could capitalise and use the Carabao Cup to end significant droughts.
In the context of this season the Carabao Cup may be the one that is sacrificed given the ludicrously packed schedule of a shortened season. Even at the best of times, Jurgen Klopp has made it abundantly clear that this competition ranks at the bottom of his priority list, whereas Pep Guardiola has perennially used it as a comfort blanket. It has been a way for Guardiola to secure his first piece of silverware in the spring before the Premier League and European run-in intensifies. While it has usually subsequently lead to more trophies, last year it was Manchester City’s only success and thus a season of underachievement by their standards.
In a trade-off between prioritising the FA Cup — the oldest club competition in football, didn’t you know — and the league cup, the former will win out once more for managers of the elite. Even considering the school of thought that a greater push in the latter might make more sense, the FA Cup is likely to take precedence over the Carabao Cup, which finishes before March (and the run-in of the longest campaign to date enters its final furlong). The hierarchy of the English game must have it so.
For Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and both Manchester clubs, the Carabao Cup likely isn’t going to be enough to appease fans this season; especially not if it comes at the expense of competitions which are perceived to be more important. So, could there a be a new winner?
Could there be a team outside of the so-called big six who propel themselves to domestic cup glory? Is it possible to envisage a situation in which one of the perennially underachieving clubs has a realistic shot at winning the final, not, for example, in the manner that a plucky underdog like Aston Villa found themselves at Wembley in 2019-20? This time around, with the competition entering the last 16 phase this midweek, the Carabao Cup could certainly mean a whole lot more to a select few.
I never thought I would say this as I have naturally conformed to the general consensus regarding the league cup’s standing in English football, but wouldn’t it be refreshing if teams outside the top five took it more seriously? That top five excludes Spurs from the usual top six, based on the fact that they have had a much longer trophy drought than any of their counterparts in that bracket.
Yet the point remains, and with the fourth-round fixtures confirmed after last week’s goal-heavy round of games, we can say with certainty that four of the quarter finalists will come from ties between Newport County and Newcastle, Everton and West Ham, Brentford and Fulham and Aston Villa and Stoke City. There is a real chance of an underdog victor.
In a sense, demoting Spurs simultaneously places them atop of the category of “the rest” when it comes to trophy-winning potential. If Mourinho is to live up to his promise in this particular competition — we can say with confidence that Spurs won’t win the Premier League but could conceivably lift the FA Cup or Europa League — then his team will have to prevail over his former employers Chelsea on Tuesday. The Portuguese would love that as much as he has historically relished this cup.
It is undoubtedly a competition Mourinho places great stock in and accredits with more value than the majority of his contemporaries. The league cup, then sponsored by Carling beer, was his first trophy on English shores. It also went some way to buying him time at United, coupled with the Europa League in 2017, and gave Mourinho some claim to have had a successful spell in Manchester.
Fast forward to now; in Mourinho’s first full season in North London is there any reason why Spurs shouldn’t be launching an assault on this particular trophy? They can hardly afford to discard what is a highly feasible shot at silverware: four games with a now revamped squad to return the club to glory that its history was once all about. The Carabao Cup presents the club’s best chance of winning a trophy for 12 years — since victory in this competition over Tuesday’s opponents. There is now a fresher feel to a squad which spent much of last season going stale and while Gareth Bale won’t be making his return debut for a while yet, things are looking up for Spurs fans in general.
But it seems internally that they may have already made a decision that Tuesday’s fixture isn’t in fact do or die. On Monday, in his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s visit to the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, Mourinho said that “I would like to fight for the Carabao but I don’t think I can”.
In reference to the club’s Europa League qualification play-off against Maccabi Haifa on Thursday: “with a game on Thursday that decides a very important game for us, I think the EFL made a decision for us.”
And finally: “Sonny was just the first (to get injured). More will come.”
We must wait to see whether this was one of Mourinho’s old-school psychological ploys or a genuine concern about injuries to his squad, a topic which seemed to take up the majority of the second half of the All or Nothing docuseries.
So, what of some of the other potential dark horses?
Everton, under the stewardship of Carlo Ancelotti, have got plenty to be optimistic about themselves. There is a tangible trust among the Toffees fanbase in the fact that they have a genuinely world-class manager, one of the most widely respected and highly achieving in football history. The much-talked-about arrivals in the transfer window have revamped their midfield, while Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison have started convincingly and dovetailed impressively at the top of the pitch.
There is no reason why good league form couldn’t translate to a good cup run, particularly with Wednesday’s game against West Ham representing a genuine chance at reaching a domestic cup quarter final. It would be their second successive progression to that stage in this competition, but there already feels to be something optimistic about the team that Ancelotti is assembling at Goodison Park.
If he could end a two and a half decade-long wait for a major trophy, he would instantly secure himself legendary status on Merseyside. As is the case with Spurs, he will be aware that this is Everton’s best shot at doing so. What’s more, if Mourinho has become a lifetime member of the serial winners club of management, Ancelotti can be considered somewhat of a founding father of the modern era, having coached (and succeeded) all across the continent for the best part of three decades.
The Carabao Cup would, in the cases of Everton and Tottenham in particular, provide a much-needed end to significant droughts relative to the sizes of two of English football’s grandest clubs. Elsewhere, despite sitting at the summit of the Premier League after a hugely impressive three successive wins, Leicester were dumped out by Arsenal last week. Southampton and Wolves — two of the other ‘best of the rest’ contenders in terms of quality — were beaten by Championship outfits Brentford and Stoke respectively.
The aforementioned Newcastle haven’t won a major honour since the Fairs Cup in 1969 (yes, 51 years ago!) and could conceivably mould themselves into a cup side for the next few months. Of course, that would have to be completed alongside rather than to the detriment of comfortable positioning away from the relegation zone in the league.
Seemingly every year, the success or failure of a team in the Carabao Cup is a direct result of how seriously they take it. Of the top teams, Manchester City arguably have the most resources and routinely try the hardest to win it, so it figures that they have won the competition five times in the last seven seasons. That ignores the fact that they beat Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea in the three final victories preceding last season’s 2-1 win over Villa.
This time around, perhaps we can read into the intent of some of the Premier League teams based on their team selections, both in the third round and this week’s round of 16. It remains to be seen whether the stranglehold of the elite continues, but if ever there is a chance for their exertions to be focused elsewhere and an outsider to snatch the opportunity for silverware, this may prove to be the best chance they’ve had for a while.