By Ewan Roberts
Once facetiously dubbed the Mickey Mouse Cup, the Capital One Cup is not the nuisance that it used to be. Last season the tournament was infected with a fantastical glee, an abundance of goals drawing pleasant surprise and affection, but an age of increased competition means that the 'bit of fun' may have to be taken rather more seriously.
Six teams are likely to challenge for the Premier League; at most, three will win domestic silverware. Only one of those sides, Arsenal, have a boss who has been at the club for more than 18 months, with several new managerial reigns and revamped squads looking for a first title win – so often the hardest to achieve – to validate and affirm the new regime. In short, the Capital One Cup can no longer be overlooked.
After the fourth round, the Gunners have joined Liverpool in prematurely exiting the competition. Arsene Wenger, noting the need to end a trophy drought that extends eight seasons, shed his usual disregard for the tournament; the side whom he put out against Chelsea had an average age of 25.5, while every outfield player had made at least one Premier League appearance this season.
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Mourinho, of course, knows only too well the value of a cup win, even one that is held in such little regard as the Capital One Cup. The Portuguese's first, highly successful stint in west London started with victory in the Carling Cup, as it was then known. The Special One played his strongest side, winning at Old Trafford in the semi-final second leg for only the second time in eight seasons, before a 3-2 victory over Liverpool in the final.
"It's important," he said after the Millennium Stadium triumph, three months before Chelsea would lift the Premier League for the first time in 50 years. "Especially for the players. It's very difficult to win for the first time and, for these players, it is the first time, so it is important." There are few stalwarts of that successful era left, while nine recent acquisitions who make up the current first-team squad have not tasted domestic success in west London, despite their European exploits.
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Many would argue that victory over the indomitable Bavarians is worth more than the Capital One Cup, others disagree. When Patrice Evra joined Manchester United in January 2006, the club had not won the league title since 2002-03, with many of the glorious golden generation having left. Barely a month after he signed, United had secured their first trophy in 18 months and would win the league the following season.
"That first trophy is always so important for you as a player," said Evra. "It doesn't matter if it's the Community Shield, the League Cup or something else. From that day you start to be a winner. You want to win more. You are hungry for more. That was a very important trophy for us. We went on to win many more after that one."
That principle applies to so many sports and so many eras. Witness Andy Murray using Olympic gold as a springboard for Grand Slam success in tennis. Witness, in 1977, Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest winning the Anglo-Scottish Cup, beating Leyton Orient 5-1.
Though a minor and short-lived tournament, Clough explained: "It was like we'd been given a shot of something positive that only a trophy, whatever it is, can bring. You could see the lot of 'em, chests out, backs straight that night. We'd won something and it made all the difference. You'd think we'd won the European Cup that night." Two years later, they did.
A trophy, then, of any nature, can only be a positive thing. A cup run provides a constant, round-after-round injection of momentum and confidence.
The Capital One Cup may not be the whole war but it is certainly a battle that can hold far greater significance, playing both a big role in deciding the destination of the Premier League title and in shaping the attitude and mentality of the many fledging squads still in a state of transition. Come March 2, one side's title push will be galvanised while the rest play catch-up.
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