The EFL Cup. The Carabao Cup. The maligned, three-handled cousin of the FA Cup. To some it is a cherished prize. To others, a fixture list-disrupting inconvenience. The 63-year-old competition has struggled for the romantic gravitas of the FA Cup. The increase in European places available to English teams has seen it fall further down the pecking order. But this year, perhaps more than any other, the EFL Cup could be exactly what a couple of big teams need.
Take Manchester United for example, the holders of the trophy. Erik ten Hag’s men are enduring a rotten season, having lost seven of their 14 games in all competitions. The Red Devils were well-beaten at the weekend, losing 3-0 to bitter rivals Manchester City. Gallingly, the performance was even worse than the result. Were it not for the spirited efforts of Andre Onana in the United goal, the result could actually have been far worse.
The competition that provided a first trophy since 2017 last season can offer some much-needed comfort at Old Trafford. Indeed, United’s one truly complete performance this season came in the EFL Cup. The 3-0 victory they secured over Crystal Palace in September was the one time this season United put a cohesive 90 minutes together. The fact they lost to the same opposition 1-0 in their following league game says it all about their inconsistency.
But the Carabao Cup can serve as a fresh start for Ten Hag’s beleaguered boys. The opposition they face on Wednesday night even echoes their Wembley triumph. Newcastle United, 2023’s beaten finalists, await at Old Trafford this midweek. A victory over them last February ended a six-year trophyless run. If United can find some form against the Magpies on Wednesday, it could transform their season. It is probably already too late for United to make any waves in the league this term. But the EFL Cup can provide an outlet for success. This time have won the competition once, doing so again could revive a dying season.
United aren’t the only floundering big name who will be glad to see the EFL Cup emerge over the horizon like a beacon of hope in a desolate campaign. Chelsea are enduring a another rotten campaign. The Blues finished 12th last term but had high hopes this time around. After a revolving door of head coaches last year, they appointed Mauricio Pochettino this summer. With another spending spree taking place, this looked like the season where the Todd Boehly/Clearlake-owned iteration of Chelsea would finally take off.
But Chelsea find themselves in 11th place after ten games. The lack of European football that many thought would be their salvation has not manifested into any additional freshness in their displays. A nadir was reached in their last game, when Brentford beat Chelsea 2-0 at Stamford Bridge.
The west London club have not endured a huge trophy drought. But their last piece of major silverware (unless you include the Club World Cup), the 2021 Champions League, was a dizzying peak before a steady decline. They have floundered through an ownership change and the desperate summer trolley dashes under Boehly’s ownership. Managers as diverse as Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter and Frank Lampard have had a go at steering the ship. None of it has worked.
But on their day, Chelsea have a team capable of beating anyone. The quality of players is high and they have a coach in Pochettino who is proven at a high level. These ingredients aren’t quite enough to sort out the patchy league form of a hastily-assembled team of strangers. But they are enough to win games in a knockout competition. At their best, a level they seldom find admittedly, Chelsea are a force to be reckoned with. Starting with Blackburn Rovers on Wednesday, the EFL Cup could be where Pochettino’s side find their finest form this season. Given their lowly league position, winning the trophy might even be their best route back into Europe.
United and Chelsea never set out to have the EFL Cup serve as the highlight of their season. These are clubs that used to monopolise the league title and latter stages of the Champions League. But those days are behind them now. For a pair of sleeping giants enduring campaigns that have rendered them narcoleptic, this maligned competition could be the exact thing they both need. Cans of Carabao all round, lads.
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