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Explaining the League Cup final

It's not the Premier League, and it's not the FA Cup. So what, exactly, is the League Cup final?

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

So what is this League Cup?

When it comes to English football, the hierarchy of top-tier competitions runs roughly as follows. First, the Premier League title: not only is it the loudest and the richest, it's also the one where everybody plays everybody else twice, home and away, and so can make a claim to at least some kind of pseudo-scientific rigor. The best team always wins the league.

Second is the venerable, ancient, slightly battered, FA Cup, the oldest football competition in the world, and still about the showpiece event of the end of the season. Though it has suffered various indignities at the hands of modern football -- Manchester United taking a year off in 1999-00; the final being played the same day as the league decider in 2012 -- it is still an object of desire and triumph.

The League Cup comes in after those two, the third leg of a domestic treble that no team in England has ever won. It stands out from the others by finishing early, acting as a kind of appetizer for the end of the season.

How is it different from the FA Cup?

The FA Cup is a giant, sprawling thing. This year, it featured 736 teams from levels one (that's the Premier League) through 10 (semi-professional leagues including the Kent Invicta, the Spartan South Midlands and the Hellenic League Division One West) and will, once it's done, have taken 14 rounds of knockout fixtures to complete.

The League Cup, on the other hand, admits just the 92 clubs from the top four divisions, which used to be known collectively as the Football League. Only seven rounds long, it was first held in 1960-61, in part because most English professional clubs wanted to play regular, competitive football in the midweek evenings between Saturdays. They'd spent all this money on these shiny new floodlights, and now they wanted an excuse to use them.

But what it lacks in size, it makes up in legs. At different points in the competition's history, various of the rounds have been held over two legs -- a home game and an away game -- including, in the early days, the final itself. At the moment it's just the semi-finals. One other notable difference is that, in recent years, the League Cup has probably been more fun than its older brother. That's what football under floodlights can do. Things just seem more intense in the darkness.

Wait, why is this the Capital One Cup?

Unlike the FA Cup, which has an awkward, on-off relationship with sponsorship -- most recently it cast itself as "The FA Cup with Budweiser", which sounded more like a serving suggestion -- the League Cup was the first English cup competition to embrace the corporate pound, in 1982, and has since danced from partner to partner with carefree abandon.

In some ways, the list of former sponsors reads like a quick socio-economic history of post-war England. First the Milk Marketing Board, a government agency designed to market milk, gave us the delightfully prosaic Milk Cup. Then, as England started to get the hang of capitalism, it went through a domestic mail order catalogue (Littlewoods) and an electronic retailer (Rumbelows), before advancing globalization threw the competition into the hands of Coca-Cola. Through the boom years of the late 90s and the 00s, Britain was drunk, and Worthington and Carling -- two profoundly forgettable beers -- did the lifting. Now we reach the current austerity-stricken rubble in company of the Capital One Financial Corporation, who are American and flog credit cards.

Do the same teams win it every year, like the Premier League?

Yes. And no. A bit of both. It's become a bit of a habit for many Premier League clubs -- particularly those also involved in European competitions -- to put out a second-string side in the League Cup, particularly in the early rounds. In essence, for the big teams the League Cup is a competition that it's absolutely fine (if a little embarrassing) to crash out of early, but once you're deep into the thing, it's a shot at a trophy. Also, it's shorter than the FA Cup, which lends itself nicely to the odd surprise package.

So while the bigger clubs have tended to dominate -- Liverpool have the most wins, with eight --  the League Cup has delivered up quite a few surprise victors down the years. Swansea City won in 2013, beating Bradford City in the final; Birmingham City hilariously beat Arsenal the preceding year. Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough both picked up victories in the early 2000s, Leicester City won the thing in 1997, and going even further back, lowly Oxford United picked up their only major honor to date in 1986.

Who's in this one, then? And who's the favorite?

Depends how you look at things. The favorites with the bookies are Chelsea, for the simple reason that they're a stronger team than their opponents Tottenham. They sit on top of the Premier League table, 21 points ahead of Spurs; they are a team designed to compete in the Champions League; and in Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Jose Mourinho they have three of the footballing world's very best at doing what they do.

However, as underdogs go, Spurs are definitely more "dangerous" than "plucky". Chelsea will be missing their most important defensive player, Nemanja Matic, through suspension, and without his screening presence the defence --John Terry plus one of the shaky Gary Cahill or the inexperienced Kurt Zouma -- could well find themselves exposed. And the last time these clubs met, back in January, Tottenham handed out a barely-credible 5-3 thumping, as this season's breakthrough star Harry Kane ran riot.

Please give me some further exciting contextual information about these teams and this competition so that I can impress my friends at the League Cup final viewing party I have this very moment decided to throw.

But of course. Jose Mourinho, manager of Chelsea, likes this competition. The 2005 League Cup was the first trophy he won in his first all-conquering spell at Chelsea, and he has since claimed that it represented an important moment in the club's evolution, that it gave his players a "taste for champagne". They must have liked it: they won the league that season and the following, both by record margins.

However, not everybody gets on with the celebratory fizz. Tottenham's last victory came in 2007-08 -- over Chelsea, as it happens -- under the management of Juande Ramos, and thanks in large part to an equalizing penalty of impudent, almost insulting coolness from Dimitar Berbatov, a man made entirely of unfiltered cigarettes and jazz. But unlike Chelsea, Tottenham failed to kick on: Berbatov left over the summer, off to win titles with Manchester United, and Ramos followed shortly after, leaving Tottenham on the bottom of the league table.

Wait, does that trophy have three handles?

Oh yes. The Alan Hardaker trophy is a triple-handed beauty, designed to look oddly off-kilter from any angle. There aren't many three-handed trophies knocking around in world sport: the Scottish League Cup has one, as does horse-racing's Melbourne Cup. So even if you can't find space in your heart for either side, embrace the trophy. Awkwardly.

However, the greatest three-handled trophy of them all doesn't even exist. Big Rigs: Over The Road Racing lives on computer gaming infamy as one of the most hideous broken products ever pushed out onto an unsuspecting marketplace. It has a Metacritic score of 8 (eight), and was described by one reviewer as "So astoundingly bad that it manages to transcend nearly every boundary put forth by some of gaming's absolute worst of the worst, and easily makes it into that dubiously extraordinary category of being one of the most atrocious games ever published."

Still, it was not without reward for the intrepid, masochistic gamer. If she could master the absent friction and the unstoppable acceleration. If she could struggle through broken physics and the weirdly permeable trees. If she could steer clear of the the endless grey void of nothingness and manage to outstrip her entirely stationary opponents. If she could, against all the odds, make it to the end of a race -- or at least to whatever arbitrary point the game decided to designate the end, which was occasionally just a few seconds in -- then she would be greeted by a golden cup with, yes, three handles! The game would shout "YOU'RE WINNER!" and her motherboard would file for divorce.