Sam Wallace: Why the kids are all right on a night that's more fun than the Champions League

Talking Football: The Carling Cup has transformed itself in the last 10 years. No club dreams of winning it, but they all enjoy the day at Wembley when they do
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Unlike the Champions League, the Carling Cup does not have its own pompous "anthem" ripped off from Handel. It does not have a glitzy draw in Monte Carlo. As yet no club has added a star to their badge in honour of winning the Carling Cup or booked an open-top bus to parade it.

But watching Rangers kill the game against Manchester United last week and then Arsenal demolish Braga 6-0 the following night, a thought occurred. In terms of pure excitement and intrigue, the Carling Cup third round this week promises a great deal more than the dreary formality of the Champions League group stages.

The beauty of the Carling Cup is that no club is ever entirely sure whether they can be bothered to win it. That means the big clubs rest players, they give the academy "kids" a chance and take risks. This week, Spurs against Arsenal tomorrow is the pick of the games but Liverpool (who play Northampton Town at home) and Manchester United (Scunthorpe away) also have some potential.

By the end of tomorrow night either Spurs or Arsenal will be out. Extra time and penalties will decide any games that are still level at full-time and no one will bother putting 10 men behind the ball because, quite frankly, no one cares that much. Although that does change should they reach the final. Last season Sir Alex Ferguson was happy to let the United kids have a go in the early stages, but for Wembley he brought in the big boys to beat Aston Villa.

In the meantime the Champions League group stage meanders on to its inevitable conclusion. It takes six games and four months just to find out, for example, that Chelsea are one of the two best teams in a group of Marseilles, Spartak Moscow and MSK Zilina. With every season that passes, the group stage is looking like a tired format that needs a rethink.

The biggest players may not always feature in the Carling Cup but it has other strengths. The highlight of the third round two years ago was an Arsenal team with an average age of 19 demolishing Sheffield United 6-0 in a performance that was talked about for weeks. Two years on and the likes of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Nicklas Bendtner and Alex Song are all first-team squad players.

This season Wenger has another generation to unleash on English football, including the academy players Chuks Aneke, Benik Afobe and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, who have all graduated to Arsenal's reserve team. But equally he knows that he cannot take an entirely inexperienced Arsenal side to the White Hart Lane bear pit in case they are beaten as easily as they were by Spurs in the competition in 2008.

Harry Redknapp is less disposed to playing kids but he cannot afford to pick his first string with games against West Ham and Twente in the next nine days. So he will use some of the fringe players like David Bentley, the new boy Sandro and potentially the youngster Jake Livermore. The Carling Cup is probably Redknapp's best chance of a trophy and he cannot afford to be uncompetitive against Arsenal, especially at home.

Selecting their Carling Cup team will be a delicate balancing act for lots of managers this week. Roy Hodgson needs to rest players too and, given that Northampton are 17th in League Two, he should not be too concerned. But while Liverpool's priorities may lie elsewhere it would be unacceptable for them to lose the game. The trick to success in the Carling Cup is winning with the minimum of effort.

The Football League could have spent a fortune rebranding the Carling Cup when, as the Worthington Cup, it went into the doldrums around 10 years ago. There was a possibility that its Uefa Cup place (as it was then) for the winners would be revoked. Instead it has transformed itself. No club dreams of winning the Carling Cup, but they all enjoy the day at Wembley when they do.

Playing a weakened team in the FA Cup is regarded as unacceptable. Playing a weakened team in the Carling Cup is virtually an expectation. Over the years it has been demonstrated that there are other benefits from doing so, which has been fundamental to the rebirth of the competition.

The seeds were sown by Ferguson, who as a manager in Scottish football had never taken the Scottish League Cup too seriously and treated the English equivalent the same when he came to United. After eight years in the job he selected Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Gary Neville to play for United against Port Vale in 1994 in what was then the Coca-Cola Cup and the concept of picking the "kids" entered football lore.

As for the supporters' attitude, only once in recent times has an attendance for a Carling Cup final dipped below 70,000 – in 2006 when Manchester United played Wigan. United fans might reasonably be expected to have Wembley fatigue. As for Wigan, they just do not have that many fans.

Yes, there will always be jokes about the Football League's old competition. It is not football's most glamorous trophy. Lionel Messi will probably sleep easy should he finish his career without winning it. But it is still a proper knockout conducted with the minimum of fuss and finished by February, which is more than you can say for the Champions League.

A prayer in private may be best way to keep the faith

The Pope may have gone home but Javier Hernandez's pre-match prayer (he kneels on the centre circle before kick-off with his arms raised to the sky) will be coming to a ground near you soon.

It goes without saying that everyone's faith is their own business, but where is this going to stop? Once upon a time a player just made a sign of the cross. On Tuesday Hernandez spent a good 30 seconds on his knees while Wayne Rooney watched him – a touch awkwardly, it must be said. Was Rooney also thinking that Hernandez would be better off doing that in private?

Wenger's record enhanced by data

Sam Allardyce's latest broadside at Arsène Wenger has to be read to be believed. "But is Arsène more advanced than me in terms of coaching? Not a chance. Does he use live fitness data on his players during games? Does he study sports psychology every day? Does he use sports science to the extent that I do? I doubt it."

To which the response is: has Allardyce won three Premier League titles, one French title and four FA Cups, and produced and developed some of the best players in the world in the last 14 years? That puts the "live fitness data" in perspective.