The League Cup is an odd competition. It begins as a distraction, but often ends as a springboard to further success. As the competition kicks off in the autumn, most of the top sides are too distracted by the restarted Premier League, and also by the demands of the Champions League. This competition gets in the way, and youngsters are given the chance to pad the numbers, or those players which the manager has not been able to shift in the summer transfer window. Despite that, it has a habit of becoming a meaningful reward for the teams that end up at Wembley in February.
There have been plenty of grudge matches over the last two decades. Manchester United have played Manchester City and Liverpool, when the teams were in different stages of form, ascendancy or decline. These games gave the chance for revenge – see United beating City this season. Going further back, the League Cup allowed Jose Mourinho to test the patience of Rafa Benitez, and his celebration of shushing the opposition fans was a taste of things to come.
For Mourinho, and Manuel Pellegrini, it was the chance to give their player a winning habit. It was Mourinho’s first victory on his return to Chelsea, too, in a season that ended with a league title. For Alex Ferguson, it was a chance to show his players that they could succeed without Ruud van Nistelrooy, putting Louis Saha up front as he found the blueprint for his last great team.
It might not really matter in and of itself, but as it comes before the end of the season, unlike the FA Cup or Champions League, it serves to bolster a side that is about to start the run-in on the season. The other two competitions will usually come just before the summer transfer window, where a team is dismantled or altered.
While the FA Cup is regarded as a distraction from the third round onward, and still will be resented for any teams that have to play in both it and the Champions League finals, the League Cup is different. As the tournament progresses, teams will either ditch the competition in favour of continued focus on the league, or they can use it for other means. It still counts as a trophy, so can be used, Arsenal-style, to distract from more serious failures in Europe and the league. It can secure European football for teams lower down the table, too, but it’s greatest value is to unite a side and give them a taste of a trophy. The very best players like those at Chelsea and United over the past decade, have found the feeling too stimulating to give up.
One trophy begets another, or that is the hope, at least. It is a tad unfair to assume that both Hull City and Southampton will be knocked out by United and Liverpool, respectively, but it is undeniably the likeliest outcome. Hull are struggling with a very poor selection of players, and may give up the chance to field a first eleven to make the most of their resources to stay up. Southampton are misfiring under Claude Puel, are struggling in front of goal, and will not call on their captain Jose Fonte, who has put in a transfer request. Liverpool and United are both on the rise, for now at least.
Klopp will be hopeful but realistic about Liverpool’s hopes for the title this season. Arsenal, although they are Arsenal, and Chelsea both have much better squads. Chelsea are not hindered by European obligations. They should finish as the top two teams in the league, if they meet their potential. Liverpool have done brilliantly so far, and Klopp has done an excellent job to make Liverpool a much better side than they were under Brendan Rodgers. To his credit, he has done much of this with many of the same players available to the previous manager, and used his skill as a coach not to improve them merely individually, but collectively. Liverpool will probably fall short, though next season we can expect another push on, so a League Cup would be a way to mark progress, and forge a deeper bond with his squad.
There’s something similar for Mourinho and United. They struggled more than they should have at the start of the season, as they accommodated Wayne Rooney and defended woefully. They had new players to bed in, but it was an oddly slow process for players as good as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba. That appears no longer to be a problem. There are other difficulties, though. Like Klopp, Mourinho has a squad with plenty of dead and balsa wood. The lack of real quality in defence is holding back Mourinho from establishing a trademark miserly backline.
Still, there has been obvious improvement, and some admittedly generous refereeing decisions, that have seen them put together a good run of form. Mourinho needs a trophy for the same reason Klopp does. To remind his team what they used to be good at, to knit the team together and foster morale and resilience, and to put down a marker for the progress made so far.
Lastly, though, there is a more desperate, pressing reason for them both. It is 2017, and while Mourinho only recently won the league, he is scarred by the abject failure in his last season at Chelsea. Klopp, too, essentially exhausted himself and Dortmund. There are doubts over whether both of them can recreate their last, great success, or if they are in irreversible decline. As they prepare for the League Cup semi-finals, they will see this as a chance to start to prove otherwise.