By Ewan Roberts
The League Cup, now in its latest guise as the Capital One Cup, has long been held in contempt; a nuisance competition whose only benefit was the blooding in of young talent without risk, and often for those who treated the tournament in such a fashion, without reward either.
It was Arsene Wenger who initiated the demeaning tradition of fielding a side brimming with youngsters, even suggesting that he would not consider victory in the tournament worthy enough to truly end Arsenal’s ever extending wait for silverware.
But it was not just the upper echelons of the Premier League who sent out weakened sides. Relegation battlers and Championship outfits have “blown off” the competition in the past, opting to rest first-team players, trial youngsters and feed reserve players much-needed game time.
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The matches cherry-picked for television, first Reading v Arsenal and then Chelsea v Manchester United, produced a staggering 21 goals. Take a minute to just breathe that in. Two days, two games, 21 (twenty-one) goals. That is a goal just under every 12 minutes.
Admittedly the quality of play, especially defensively, was not always high, but the entertainment value was almost unparalleled. And in amongst all that manic, frenetic end-to-end action, there was a fascinating result for League Two side Bradford.
The Yorkshire club, plying their trade in England’s fourth tier, travelled to the DW Stadium to take on Premier League veterans Wigan, positioned 59 places higher than their opponents, and earned a thoroughly unexpected penalty shoot-out victory to carry them into the quarter-finals.
There were upsets elsewhere as Norwich knocked out Tottenham and Swansea romped to a 3-1 victory at Anfield to eliminate holders Liverpool.
Of course the real action came on Tuesday night as Theo Walcott & Co. came from 4-0 down to beat Reading 7-5. It was a barmy match that fluctuated between the sublime and the ridiculous, with stunning finishes juxtaposed by mindless defending and, most incredibly of all, a double for Marouane Chamakh.
Reading were rampant in the first half, with Jason Roberts in particular bullying a young Arsenal side who appeared to share their manager’s laissez-faire attitude towards the competition. But the north London side rallied with Walcott, an unexpected flag-bearer, carrying his side back into the match with three goals and two assists.
From down-and-out Arsenal dragged themselves back into the game and into the lead, only for Pavel Pogrebnyak to remarkably level the score once more. Two injury-time strikes in extra-time condemned the Royals to defeat, but may have acted as a defibrillator for a flagging tournament.
In all of the fourth round games, the teams in action undoubtedly fielded weakened sides, but not uncompetitive ones. There were thousands of Premier League appearances shared out amongst those on the field, with starts for the likes of Walcott, Gareth Bale, Nani and Juan Mata. Entertainers, first teamers, established stars.
Perhaps if there is still a hangover with regard to the view of the Capital One Cup as a booby prize, a less consequential tournament, then that feeds a certain cavalier attitude in the matches. A swashbuckling, gung-ho approach born out of the knowledge that fans and managers are content to lose, happy to be freed of the schedule-tightening burden.
But try telling the army of Red Devils fans at Stamford Bridge that the tournament is irrelevant. Chelsea and United locked horns once more on Wednesday night, but it was the supporters who truly did battle, sparring and goading each other.
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In an exhilarating match that see-sawed between the two sides, with Eden Hazard’s late penalty sending the match into extra-time before strikes from Daniel Sturridge and Ramires sealed a comeback win for the hosts, it was the crowd who stole the show.
Packed to the rafters, United’s large and vocal support fed the home crowd who barked back, the sides toyed with each other, got under one another’s skin. It was a zealous, fiery cauldron of an atmosphere which proved that the Capital One Cup is a tournament that can breathe competitiveness, ferocity and rivalry, a tournament worth supporting, worth taking seriously.
A barnstorming, entertaining round of action may just have promoted the Cup from the inconvenient sideshow it once was to a competition that demands to be highlighted in the calendar.
An interesting round of quarter-final ties – the Ken Bates Clasico, Michael Laudrup's 'Swanselona' versus the increasingly impressive Middlesbrough, Paul Lambert’s homecoming and underdogs Bradford against Capital One Cup antagonists Arsenal – should only add to the growing esteem the once derided tournament is beginning to be held in.
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