Until quite recently, the Football League Cup seemed destined to join such competitions as the European Cup-Winners' Cup in football's graveyard. The big clubs, already fielding near-reserve teams, were lobbying to quit the competition and Uefa was threatening to take away its European place. Extinction, or at least emasculation, seemed inevitable.
This week the competition, currently known as the Carling Cup, deservedly takes centre stage. Tomorrow there is a north London derby, tonight a fixture pregnant with dramatic possibility. Chelsea ought to cruise past Wycombe Wanderers in their semi-final, second leg tonight. The champions have an away goal from the first leg and are unbeaten in normal play at Stamford Bridge since Jose Mourinho's arrival in 2004. Yet such is the depth of Chelsea's crisis that Wycombe, of League Two, could emulate Charlton Athletic, who knocked Chelsea out of this competition on penalties at the Bridge last year.
It is improbable, not least because Ricardo Carvalho and Claude Makelele return after missing Saturday's defeat at Anfield. Wycombe have three players cup-tied and are unable to field Anthony Grant under the terms of his loan from Chelsea. But they can recall the centre-half Will Antwi (groin), midfielder Matt Bloomfield (ankle) and striker Tommy Mooney, who has been suspended. They also believe they have a chance to become the first bottom-tier cub to reach the final since Rochdale in 1962, the competition's second season when 10 clubs, including then Second Division Liverpool, refused to enter.
"Even Barcelona didn't beat them at Stamford Bridge this season," said Paul Lambert, Wycombe's manager, "but, somewhere down the line someone is going to have to beat them, so why not us?" Lambert, a European Cup winner as a player with Borussia Dortmund, added: "We've earned the right to go there and play them. We gave a good account in the first leg and now in a one-off game anything can happen."
Saturday's tame defeat at Anfield, and Chelsea's infighting, adds to that pressure, with defeat tonight capable of prompting all manner of consequences.
"When I don't win, I like the next match quickly so I am happy we play [tonight]," Mourinho said. "We have to [have] a strong mentality, with no crying."
Arjen Robben has joined Chelsea's injury list after suffering ankle ligament damage but the question exercising most Chelsea fans is whether Mourinho will play the striker Andrei Shevchenko.Reuse content