How FA Cup's little brother is now England's best knockout competition
Cheap tickets and goals galore make tournament more appealing than prestigious rival
Thursday 01 November 2012
If Tuesday night's 12-goal, two-hour manic epic was unique, it was not entirely without precedent. The League Cup has, for some time now, provided more thrills and, arguably, better entertainment than its older, richer, more prestigious brother.
Almost every season, fans are blessed with this sort of floodlit goal frenzy. Games end with scores from a tight rugby match, or a set of tennis, in a way true of no other English competition.
Tuesday was not the first time Arsenal have profited from this. Nearly six years ago, they won another astonishing game 6-3 at Liverpool. Julio Baptista scored four. In the second leg of a 2010 semi-final, Aston Villa beat Blackburn Rovers 6-4. Blackburn were beaten 5-3 by Manchester United two years before. Not that these results are reserved for the big teams. Earlier this season, Derby County and Scunthorpe United drew 5-5. Last year, Burnley beat Burton 6-3, and Cardiff beat Huddersfield 5-3.
There is a fairground feel to the Capital One Cup, in the autumn, under lights, with cheap tickets and less of the acrimony and earnestness which seems to colour our more famous competitions. Players and supporters seem more relaxed, and the results are weighed in goals.
The lightness of the competition's imprint on the schedule must be part of it. No weekends are given over to the Capital One Cup, and there is as full a league programme as possible on the weekend of the final. There are no replays, despite what Olivier Giroud and Francis Coquelin thought when they threw their shirts into the crowd after 90 minutes on Tuesday. There are two legs for the semi-final, but every other round is decided on the night. If you cannot hold on for a replay, and fear penalties, the only option is victory. So teams attack more as games go on.
There is less time for tension and angst to build, as it can for those big league and FA Cup games. The League Cup is a distraction from the worries of relegation, or not being good enough to stay near the top, or any of the other anxieties which afflict the 92. Brian McDermott insisted after seeing his Reading team play with freedom and then fear that this was a one-off game, and had "nothing to do with the league".
Given its status, the League Cup is often used to give opportunities to those who might not always play. Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin were involved in all seven of Arsenal's goals on Tuesday, but had only started four games this season between them before Tuesday's match. Even Marouane Chamakh, making his first start since last January, scored twice.
If the players are slightly different from the usual characters, then so are the fans. Clubs often take advantage of the Capital One Cup as a time to cut ticket prices, allowing in younger and more enthusiastic supporters than for the big Premier League games. Arsenal sold tickets for their third-round tie with Coventry City at £10 and £20, and sold out. Chelsea's game with Manchester United last night cost £25. With the 20 per cent required allocation for away fans, the atmospheres are better than might be expected given the stakes. In terms of value for money, it is unbeatable.
Of course, teams would rather win the league than the League Cup. But the Capital One Cup's position in the calendar means it can impact on the season, getting a run on its rivals which do not climax until May.
Some good things have started with a League Cup win. Jose Mourinho won it in 2005 with Chelsea, sparking a run of five trophies in three years. After two of the worst years of his tenure, Sir Alex Ferguson won it in 2006, the first trophy of the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nemanja Vidic, which was to bring three consecutive titles to Old Trafford and Ferguson's second European Cup.
In 2011, Arsenal reached the Carling Cup final. A win would have been their first trophy in six years. But they lost traumatically, and their season collapsed. This competition can be powerful and fun. Wenger, still in it, will hope for a reversal this season.
'Embarrassing': Twitter reaction
"Embarrassing Now! Can't believe this what a opportunity for the Fringe players to give Wenger a selection Headache. No Chance of that!"
Ray Parlour (at 4-0 to Reading)
"When fans chant 'We want our Arsenal back', it's time for a new manager. Wenger's been brilliant, but he's lost his competitive edge."
Piers Morgan (at 4-1)
The odds on an Arsenal win as they trailed 4-0 were 66/1, with one punter placing a £100 bet. A £570 bet was also taken at 1/33 on Reading to win.
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