Football: Ginola's wiles keep Foxes occupied

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The Independent Online
FOR AN apparently sickly and unloved competition the Football League Cup will appear in rude health when it celebrates its 39th final at Wembley tomorrow. A few clubs may no longer take the competition seriously but the touts still make a killing, television still shows the match live and, despite various assasination attempts by the European and Premiership elite, it still provides the winner with a gateway to Europe.

To the players, fans and managers of the finalists, Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur, the competition thus remains as important as ever. Yesterday, Leicester's Martin O'Neill and his Spurs counterpart, George Graham, paid a preliminary visit to Wembley. Surrounded by logos from the latest sponsor, Worthington, they went through the pre-match niceties with customary elan. O'Neill played the underdog card, Graham said that concept was "laughable" in a final. The media concentrated on David Ginola, so O'Neill built up his importance, and Graham duly played it down.

What they both agreed on was the importance of winning. O'Neill (twice a winner as a player with Nottingham Forest, once as manager of Leicester) sees it as a chance for the club to gain a second cup in three seasons and further confirm their progress from yo-yo club to established Premiership outfit. For Graham, victory should seal his acceptance by Tottenham fans even while prompting memories of his glory days with Arsenal. Graham won this competition in his first season at Highbury, the 2-1 defeat of Liverpool, the first of six trophies in eight seasons.

"Without doubt it helps when you are talking to players," said O'Neill. "Whether you are trying to bring them into the club or keep them there. We have ambitions, we have a new stadium hopefully coming along in 18 months, and winning a trophy - and qualifying for Europe - helps you keep players who might do better financially elsewhere."

Graham, taking part in his eighth final, four as a player (one win, in 1965 with Chelsea), four as a manager (two wins with Arsenal), said the final could act as a springboard to bigger things. "It's nice to win cups but my yardstick is championship. To win that we need better players and winning cups, and getting into Europe helps to attract them."

Graham's emphasis underlines Spurs' potential as a big club, but this is their first trip to Wembley since the 1993 FA Cup semi-final. Leicester have made five visits since then, most of them in play-off finals and, after losing in their first six Wembley games, are now unbeaten in three.

These sort of statistics are often irrelevant but they do mean that Leicester are unlikely to be overawed. And nor should they be, their "underdog" role is based as much on the clubs' respective histories and media profile as in their potential. Leicester have a solid team, from Kasey Keller in goal, through a sturdy central defence based around Matt Elliot, and the busy midfield of Neil Lennon and Mussy Izzet, to the contrasting but complementary qualities of Emile Heskey and Tony Cottee in attack.

Spurs do have more big names: Sol Campbell, Darren Anderton, Ian Walker, Les Ferdinand and, of course, Ginola. But their team is disrupted by the ineligibility of Mauricio Taricco and Tim Sherwood, and there are areas of vulnerability.

At first sight the most likely match-winners, Cottee and Ginola, could barely be more contrasting but have more in common than initially appears. Both players were rejected prematurely by their countries - Cottee after one international start, Ginola after being blamed for France's failure to make the 1994 World Cup finals - and both have little to show for long and respected careers.

Cottee, 33, after 18 seasons in the game, has only won two medals, both from his brief foray into Malaysian football. Ginola, 32, won the championship and cup in France with Paris St-Germain but, apart from some glittering goals, has nothing to show for four sublime seasons in England.

While Cottee is an unspectacular potential hero Ginola will be expected to produce the day's lustre. This clearly worries Graham, who stressed: "It is very rare that a star player has a great game on these occasions. We all want them to be excellent as it is a Wembley showpiece but they rarely live up to expectation. Look at the Manchester United-Liverpool FA Cup final of a few years ago; all those quality players and it was a poor game. I have told him to just treat it as a normal game."

Given his form in "normal" games that is the last thing Leicester will want. "He has been in fantastic form, he's been consistently brilliant," said O'Neill. Two seasons ago Pontus Kaamark successfully marked Juninho in the final and it would not be a surprise if he is given similar duties. Frank Sinclair's mobility may win him a place ahead of Gerry Taggart.

Given Leicester's power Graham may prefer Ramon Vega and Les Ferdinand to Luke Young and Steffen Iversen because of their greater experience and physique. Justin Edinburgh and Allan Nielsen are likely to deputise for Taricco and Sherwood.

I take Spurs to win a match which will be decided on the day, not because they are a "big" club, but because they are in the better form and, under Graham, have resilience as well as quality.

Worthington cup final

Kick-off Tomorrow 3.00 (itv)