A love letter to an unloved competition: in praise of the League Cup

Alex Livesey

The League Cup gets a bad press, but no tournament has continually produced as much spectacle in recent years. It's time we all learned to love it.

In advance of Aston Villa and Chelsea's 3-0 second leg wins, and the latter's grim 5-0 procession in the final, it's worth sending a note of thanks to England's premier tournament, the League Cup.

It's been getting a bad press in recent years, with people suggesting that a tournament nobody really cares about winning goes against everything the sport holds dear, but if you're not Neil Warnock, you shouldn't get too upset about weakened teams or such lofty notions about the spirit of the game.

The fact that big teams aren't hugely bothered about winning it is what makes it so special. It's the golden goal rule in reverse - just as that experiment made clear that upping the stakes makes for more nervy, negative play, having teams compete for something somewhere between a friendly and a real match frequently produces some great spectacles. That meant that Manchester United and Chelsea could serve up a feast like this season's deranged 5-4 skirmish, both teams giving some of their most cavalier displays of the season buoyed by the fact that defeat would mean so little that all-out attack was the best option available.

Pundits like to pontificate about the glory of the FA Cup, but looking at recent years and the moments that both tournaments have served up, it's no comparison. Few people not of a blue persuasion will have enjoyed Chelsea's many recent dour, grinding wins - instead, who could fail to grin from ear to ear at the sight of Obafemi Martins officially confirming Arsenal's status as self-parody Or Cardiff City taking Liverpool all the way in last year's final

Even on the rare occasions the League Cup does mean something, it rarely disappoints. The first legs of this years semi-finals were, despite the rather larger gulf between Bradford and Aston Villa, identical: smaller clubs who would like nothing more than to win the trophy competing against far larger teams helmed by managers who really couldn't afford an embarrassment. Both Villa and Chelsea fielded virtually full-strength teams for the encounters, and both went home soundly beaten. When Manchester United and Manchester City were both talking too big to back down from any encounter in 2010, they produced a classic two-legged tie easily as entertaining as their clashes in the league.

Unlike the FA Cup, there's little hangover about the results, either - most of the games appear to be peculiarly forgotten. Take 1994, when Aston Villa last lost a League Cup semi-final to a lower-league side. The second leg produced something beautiful, genuinely one of the most spectacular dramas in English football in a brilliant game between two likeable, attractive sides, yet the only people who seem to remember it now are Tranmere fans still bitter about Mark Bosnich not even getting a yellow card.

The best thing of all is that the League Cup is a tournament which not only lets us ask "Can Santiago Cazorla do it on a wet Wednesday in Bradford?", but also gives us the possibility that we can follow it up with "OK, but can he do it next year on a Thursday as well?" Yes, we now face the very real possibility that there will be a League Two side in European competition, and if you don't want to see what happens with that, this probably isn't the sport for you. Few competitions have such gulf between myth and reality as the FA Cup in modern times, but the League Cup comes close to justifying all the hype of its bigger cousin. And if nothing else, it will be worth it to laugh at the Capital One marketing department contemplating a Swansea vs. Bradford final.

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