Football:Coca-Cola now has real sting

Ian Ridley reports on the cup competition which has belatedly come alive
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SUDDENLY the Coca-Cola Cup does not appear quite the Mickey Mouse competition of early season. In fact, the line-up of this week's semi- finals look more like a scene from The Lion King with the pride of big cats stirring and now on the prowl.

In recent seasons, the attitude towards the Football League's knock-out trophy has mostly been one of snooty indifference by the big clubs. For those aspiring to the elite, such as Aston Villa, or building up club and team, such as Leicester City, it has been silverware to try for, but for Manchester United and their main rivals a mere distraction. The more so now that a European place has been withdrawn by Uefa.

But Tuesday will see Liverpool at home to Middlesbrough, while the following night, Chelsea make the short trip - in distance if not time - across London to face Arsenal. These are the first legs of what look like serious semis. Compared to Boro and Stockport, Leicester and Wimbledon last season, the competition has a pedigree rather than an offbeat look.

Renewed interest in the proceedings has almost been forced upon the three Premiership clubs, both by the dominance of Manchester United and their own shortcomings elsewhere. Despite United's recent blips, the title still looks bound for Old Trafford and, for Liverpool and Chelsea, the prospect of the FA Cup was removed at the first hurdle.

In addition, the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, would be grateful for a trophy of any importance, simply to buy himself time to win the bigger prizes. It worked, after all, for George Graham before him at Highbury. In Graham's first full season of 1986-87, Arsenal won the then Littlewoods Cup and without pressure he was then able to build a team to capture the title two years later.

For Wenger, it is a far cry from autumn when he was advocating that those teams competing in Europe should be excused the Coca-Cola should they wish to be, and when he was fielding virtually a reserve team against Birmingham City, and the club offered fans a refund as a consequence. "There is less interest in this competition as there is no European place," he said. Compare and contrast with the quarter-final attitude and team at West Ham.

Roy Evans, a rare top manager who has not been quite so casual about this competition, would also welcome a victory to add to his only trophy - this one three years ago - as talk persists that he will be asked to move upstairs at the end of the season. A runners-up position in the Premiership to claim a Champions' League spot to accompany the Coca-Cola, would undoubtedly cement his position should he wish to stay on.

Ruud Gullit's job looks bomb-proof, if he decides to remain in England next season, that is, as speculation mounts about other offers. But for Chelsea the Coca-Cola offers insurance should their European Cup-winners' Cup campaign, which resumes in the first week of March against Real Betis in Seville, go awry. As United put paid to their defence of the FA Cup, Chelsea's title challenge has faded; at the very least the Coca-Cola is sustaining supporters through a fallow period in their season.

Ironically, the team probably now least anxious are the only Football League club left. The concern for Middlesbrough will be the echoes of last season, when their fate of being beaten finalists eventually drained them of energy for league priorities, even if promotion rather than relegation is the more uplifting campaign this season.

They too, though, will be fired anew by the proximity of a Wembley final; it is a natural instinct. Besides, all is not yet lost: the Football League are appealing against Uefa's decision and a couple of English members of the European Parliament are threatening to challenge its legality. While the Coca-Cola Cup may represent a consolation, it is still a prize.