Premier League, Champions League, Premier League, Champions League, Premier League, Champions League, Premier League. Liverpool and Manchester United may not have got their way just yet but their fixture lists for the next month seem to contain a glimpse of the future they envisage.
Liverpool face Everton and Manchester City, plus Champions League semi-finalists and quarter-finalists from the last two seasons, albeit Ajax and Atalanta. United have Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and last season’s runners-up and semi-finalists, in Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig. There is no repeat of their relatively recent October dates with Swansea, Middlesbrough and Norwich in the League Cup, because there is no League Cup until December.
This year’s competition has felt like an advertisement for its abolition: a flurry of rounds, featuring games that were rearranged at late dates, a surfeit of even weaker teams because of fixture congestion and some decidedly odd choices for televised fixtures, followed by a hiatus of almost three months.
And, oddly enough, some are willing its demise. One of the least controversial elements about Project Big Picture appears to be the suggestion to scrap the League Cup. While Liverpool, United and Rick Parry’s plans are officially dead, a forthcoming strategic review means a version of them is sure to live on. The League Cup is not.
Yet it should. The argument that France is the only other country with a second domestic Cup competition and it is being scrapped is insufficient. The only clubs suffering from fixture congestion – in a normal season, anyway – are those who want to expand the Champions League and go on longer, more lucrative pre-season tours.
But the League Cup is worth preserving in its own right. It has been both the vehicle for unlikely glory and the route to silverware for top teams. The great anomalies of the last decade are Leicester City winning the Premier League and Wigan Athletic the FA Cup. Yet it is the League Cup that offers the most scope: for the minnows, the mid-ranking teams, the fallen giants and the starved of silverware alike.
It has offered the sort of memories to give it genuine meaning. It is the most recent trophy Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Tottenham, Blackburn, Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday have won. It is the only one or ones for Birmingham, Norwich, Middlesbrough, Stoke, QPR, Swindon, Luton, Oxford and (in England anyway) Swansea. The most recent major final Villa, Bradford, Sunderland, Southampton, Bolton, Tranmere and Leeds played in was in the League Cup. In the last 1990s and early 2000s, it generated some unlikely winners and some superb semi-finals.
And, yes, it weakens the competition’s cause that 14 of the last 16 winners may profit from its abolition. Yet that indicates a change that has raised the standard. Jose Mourinho recognised its status as the most winnable trophy, Sir Alex Ferguson…