For a long time, the League Cup – or the EFL Cup, as it has been unscrupulously rebranded too – represented the bargain basement of domestic competitions; the one that nobody really wanted to win.
But a general sea change in attitude, plus a recent history littered with ‘big winners’, suggests that more clubs are taking the view that this tournament is potentially a great way to reward fans with a day out at Wembley Stadium and perhaps earn a backdoor entry into European competition for the following season.
You only need to look at the strength of the starting line-ups that Liverpool and Manchester City fielded in the 2016 final for evidence of that, and that’s despite the fact that for much of the campaign they were both undertaking European adventures of their own. Manuel Pellegrini played his strongest side in that final even though it followed a Champions League last 16 match just four days prior; highlighting the increasing demand for League Cup glory.
Here is the list of most recent EFL Cup winners, and their respective league positions that season:
- 2016 – Manchester City (4th)
- 2015 – Chelsea (1st)
- 2014 – Manchester City (1st)
- 2013 – Swansea (9th)
- 2012 – Liverpool (8th)
As we can see then, we can happily dismiss the notion that the EFL Cup is a mere distraction, particularly in the last three years when it has been won by a side gunning for the Champions League places.
The competition returns tonight with its first round matches, and while none of the big boys enter at this stage now is as good a point as any to consider the outright market and the possibilities contained within.
Big Two Look Primed for Success
While the stats don’t necessarily back this assumption up, you would think that not having the distraction of a European campaign would play into the hands of other sides looking to win trophies while keeping their squad fresh.
Two of English football’s big guns, Chelsea and Liverpool, are free from the rigours of an exhausting continental campaign, and both have squads large enough and good enough to make their mark on domestic up action even if their respective bosses decide to rotate their starting elevens.
We would suspect that Chelsea will become embroiled in a lengthy title race – certainly they will become ensconced in a battle for the Champions League places – so Antonio Conte could be forgiven for taking his foot off the gas when this competition rolls around.
In contrast, we already saw last season the respect that Jurgen Klopp showed the cup contests, and the German was clearly gunning for glory in his first season in charge at Anfield. Without a sapping Europa League campaign to contend with, this competition and the FA Cup are clearly his side’s best chance of claiming silverware.
This may or may not come as a surprise to you, but Liverpool have incredible history in the various incarnations of this competition. They have lifted the trophy on eight occasions and appeared in four other finals, and often that kind of tradition dictates that they will be pulling out all the stops to add number nine to the list.
Klopp has added depth to his squad and will be able to field a strong side even if his big players are given the evening off. The draw plays a big part in determining the final resting place of the trophy, of course, and a charmed run to the final in 2015/16 of Carlisle, Bournemouth, Southampton and Stoke is what we might term ‘tough but very doable’. If the Reds are afforded another luxurious waltz to Wembley then they won’t need asking twice to take it.
In a competition blessed with shock results over the years, it pays to back a strong side that is motivated to go all the way. At 10/1, Liverpool look a shrewd investment for EFL Cup glory.