For English football, the turn of the year is an exciting time. It starts with the tradition flurry of fixtures over Christmas, which, like many of the traditions surrounding this time of year, is simultaneously brilliant, gluttonous and terribly unhealthy. At least if you're a hamstring. A couple of weeks later comes the third round of the FA Cup, which is the point in the competition when the biggest teams in the country enter the competition with their fingers crossed, praying they don't get humiliated on national television by, say, Exeter City.
Compared to these two great pillars of the footballing calendar, the League Cup semifinals — which start tonight and finish next week — don't cast quite so long a shadow. After all, it's the third competition in importance and prestige, and it's become even more so since Arsene Wenger decided to try and win the thing with a team of children.
But despite all this, and despite the vaulted company they keep, the League Cup semifinals are worthy of respect. Indeed, as a spectacle, they arguably outweigh the final itself: a chilly, early spring trip to Wembley is always a bit weird, and the game tends to take place on the same weekend as a full league programme. The semifinals, however, are much more in keeping with the tone of the competition.
For a start, they take place at night. This is a competition that owes its existence, at least in part, to the fact that by the beginning of the 1960s, the majority of English professional clubs had fitted their grounds with floodlights and wanted to show them off. And quite right too: floodlit football, in the proper darkness of a winter night, is a quite beautiful thing. The fact that they take place over two legs also lends them a pleasing note of mild but pleasing exoticism; in the professional English domestic calendar, the only other two-legged games come right at the end of the season in the Football League playoffs. If you want a two-legged cup game and you're not in Europe, it's the League Cup or nothing.
But all that would be just decoration if the games themselves weren't worth watching, and the best argument for the importance of the League Cup semis comes in the fact that for the disinterested viewer simply looking for entertainment, recent years have been very strong indeed. Something great usually happens — be that funny-great, weird-great, brilliant-great, or a combination of all three.
Last year, for example, we were treated to a contest of supreme moodiness, snark and ill-temper between Chelsea and Liverpool. (Obviously, you're not supposed to admit to enjoying this kind of thing, but we're all friends here.) Diego Costa went full Diego Costa — he should have had a penalty, he got booked for rubbing heads with Steven Gerrard and he subsequently received a three-match ban for sticking his studs into Emre Can — and Liverpool missed several decent opportunities to win the game, before Branislav Ivanovic eventually scored the winner in extra time. Not that Jose Mourinho saw the goal. He was too busy arguing with the fourth official.
The year before was perhaps even better, as David Moyes' Manchester United managed to stick the landing on the very rare Triple Cock-up With Pike. First they lost the away leg at Sunderland; then they nearly lost the return in extra time after David de Gea chucked in a weak shot from Phil Bardsley in the 119th minute; then, after managing to scramble an equaliser in the 60 seconds that remained, they contrived to lose one of the worst penalty shootouts in recorded history, scoring just one of their five spot kicks.
Back and back we go: Swansea City beating Chelsea and Bradford City beating Aston Villa in 2012-13; Cardiff City hanging on against Crystal Palace before winning the shootout; Villa going 2-0 down in 20 minutes before beating Blackburn 6-4; Wayne Rooney's last-minute winner against Manchester City inside a bouncing Old Trafford, a sentence that looks positively ludicrous now. Sometimes the storylines stretch over a couple of seasons: in 2007, Arsenal beat Tottenham at the Emirates in extra time to reach the final; the following year, Spurs got their revenge, sticking five past Arsenal at White Hart Lane
This isn't a cast-iron guarantee of entertainment, but it's definitely a trend. If we wanted a highfalutin theory as to why the League Cup semifinals, we might suggest that the trappings — nighttime knockout football under lights — combine with the unusual significance — huge because it's a semifinal, but less than even a straightforward league game since it's only the third cup — to create an occasion that sits slightly outside the normal flow of the season. One that is odd, and so inspires oddness in its protagonists.
Or it could just be a coincidence. But if it is, then this year's pairings look prime for further coincidentalism. In the (two different shades of) blue corner, Manchester City take on Everton. Neither side can defend, both can definitely attack, and Everton have been cultivating quite a nice line in inconveniencing City over the last few seasons. On the red (with white stripes) side of things, we've got Stoke, who have been occasionally brilliant but wildly inconsistent, equally capable of taking Manchester City to pieces and getting turned over by Watford. Their opponents Liverpool, meanwhile, have been occasionally brilliant but wildly inconsistent, equally capable of taking Manchester City to pieces and getting turned over by Watford. So, 0-0 or 6-6, then.
We won't go as far as should be good, but we're sure that things could be good. And besides: it's January. It's cold, it's dark and it's the first week back at work after the holidays. Surely, oh dark and forbidding universe, a couple of red cards, a nine-goal thriller and Eliaquim Mangala putting the ball into his own net isn't too much too ask?
Stoke City vs. Liverpool -- Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET
Everton vs. Manchester City -- Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET
Liverpool vs. Stoke City -- Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2:45 p.m. ET
Manchester City vs. Everton -- Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2:45 p.m. ET
All four games are on beIN Sports in the United States.