THE importance of Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup semi-final first leg at the Theatre of Memes needs little to no exposition but let’s do it anyway. For Manchester United it affords an opportunity to correct the erratic driving of their manager at the wheel and setting course for Wembley can certainly do that.
Frankly, this is a result Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side needs more than they even desire it. For the visitors it is an early chance to avenge last month’s league defeat, a loss that proved beyond doubt to even the Etihad’s brightest optimists that City’s travails were not going to transform anytime soon into title challenging form.
Above all else of course this is also a derby. In a semi. So it is that the rancour and pettiness and downright spite that ferments over the course of a lifetime bubbles and spits accordingly. Regarding City however there is an extra layer of meaning to this fixture that renders the opponent and occasion largely irrelevant. It’s the competition itself that matters.
️ Ole Gunnar Solskjaer:
"They’re [City] back winning games – form goes out of the window. Local derby adrenaline, atmosphere and on any given day games can change within a moment – a ref’s decision, luck, injury, red card but we know they’re a top team…"#MCFC @Carabao_Cup
— Man City Xtra (@City_Xtra) January 6, 2020
Because it may have become somewhat lost amidst the bigger storylines concerning Manchester City’s rise to prominence but it is still mightily impressive that they have managed to win the EFL Cup four times in the past six years. It is a domination that trumps United’s firm grip on the trophy in the 2000s and betters Nottingham Forest and Leicester City’s love affair with the tournament in the 70s and 90s respectively. It rivals even Liverpool’s stranglehold on it throughout the eighties.
Such sustained success has come about due to Pep Guardiola and his predecessor Manuel Pellegrini unfailingly giving the competition the respect it deserves and fully recognising the positive knock-on effects that often result from winning it. The respect is there clear as day in the strong team selections picked by both men in recent years with this season’s third round trip to Preston featuring five players who could be considered automatic starters in other comps. Manchester United and Arsenal went with four apiece. Liverpool had just three.
Indeed, throughout the course of last season’s journey to the final and the lifting of the trophy Guardiola’s team-sheets were made up of 80.3% of players who made ten or more league appearances and that’s a run that includes a semi-final second leg to Burton with the Blues already nine goals to the good. It is an esteem that flies in the face of conventional logic that sees the Carabao Cup – especially in the early rounds – filled with youth talent and fringe fare. It should not be overlooked either that City were fighting on four fronts at the time.
Guardiola deserves an enormous amount of credit for valuing our domestic cup competitions. He never gets it and probably never will.
PEP on United It is a team that is built to run.
When they can run, they are one of the best teams, not just in England, because of the pace they have with James, with Greenwood, Martial, Rashford and Lingard.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) January 5, 2020
As for the benefits from succeeding in the tournament that is best illustrated in the imperious form enjoyed by City following their last two triumphs. Winning a trophy is always conducive to restoring belief and togetherness and building momentum but that’s of little use in May. A celebratory day out in February though comes at the perfect time when fatigue is starting to set in and demands become familiar and subsequent to the 3-0 drubbing of Arsenal in the 2017 final and last spring’s penalty shoot-out victory over Chelsea the Blues lost just once in 22 games. It cannot be underestimated how instrumental the latter was incidentally in propelling them to the 14 straight wins that ultimately secured the title.
If all this explains why the club has a deep and sincere affection for the Carabao Cup there is also the supporters to consider. Naturally four highly enjoyable – and usually drunken – afternoons in North London has created a meaningful affinity between the fan-base and a tournament sometimes belittled as being ‘Mickey Mouse’ and we should briefly pause here to damn the term. Firstly, it is not coincidental that the belittling only originates from those who lose out. Secondly, Disneyland is a whole lot of fun.
And boy what fun we’ve had with memories carved out, cherished and forever indelible.
Yaya Toure’s sublime thirty-yard screaming swoosher against Sunderland in 2014 is destined to nestle in every Blue’s top ten footballing moments until the day finally comes when Donald Trump learns the nuclear codes. Willy Caballero’s spot-kick heroics that downed Liverpool also stands out, especially as his mistaken belief that another save was needed gave his zenith in a City shirt a comedy twist. Then last season Raheem put it ‘top bins’ with Pep unable to look.
“The Carabao Cup in a good competition,” the Catalan said simply back in October, but it is infinitely more than that. For City it has been a source of inspiration, a source of joy, and a running mate through an unforgettable era. A mere derby by comparison pales.