The EFL Cup has become the competition of rotation for the Premier League’s biggest clubs, and a glance at the list of recent winners shows that the policy has done them little harm.
Manchester City are the holders after their 3-0 triumph over Arsenal in last season’s final, while their local rivals Manchester United were victorious the previous year. City were also triumphant in both 2014 and 2016, while Chelsea got their hands on the trophy after beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in the 2015 showpiece. The last time a side from outside the so-called big six scooped the prize was in 2013 when Swansea City thrashed surprise finalists Bradford City 5-0.
It is likely that one of the top-flight’s leading outfits will win the tournament this year too. City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham are all through to the quarter-finals, which take place on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. Middlesbrough, Burton Albion, Leicester City and Bournemouth are all still in the mix, though, and the latter two sides in particular will be determined to claim the first piece of silverware on offer in 2018/19.
For clubs such as Leicester and Bournemouth, the League Cup has arguably taken on greater importance in the last few years. Manchester United may be struggling in the Premier League at present, but it is highly probable that they will finish the campaign in the top six, while Liverpool, City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham are already virtually guaranteed to qualify for Europe through their league positions.
There is thus very little chance of a team breaking from the pack and challenging for the Champions League places (never mind anyone replicating Leicester’s astonishing title triumph of 2015/16) – something that Bobby Robson’s Newcastle United, Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers, David Moyes’ Everton, Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa and Roberto Martinez’s Everton all did in the past. The current top five have lost just three times to the bottom 15 so far this term; in 2017/18, meanwhile, a mammoth 21 points separated Liverpool in fourth from Burnley in seventh.
The new reality means that the vast majority of top-flight teams enter the season with an objective that is no more ambitious than simply avoiding relegation. It is for that reason that almost every Premier League manager shuffles his pack in the early rounds of the EFL Cup, handing first-team opportunities to young players and fringe members of the squad. There is now deemed to be too much money in the top tier to risk dropping out of it, so other competitions play a secondary role to the bread and butter of the league.
Barring a complete collapse in the second half of the campaign, Bournemouth and Leicester will stay up this year. The EFL Cup therefore gives both clubs an excellent chance to claim a tangible prize and ensure this goes down as one of their most memorable seasons – the Cherries’ last piece of silverware came in the form of the 1984 Football League Trophy, while the Foxes have not won a domestic cup competition in 18 years.
Leicester host Manchester City on Tuesday night, before Bournemouth travel to Chelsea on Wednesday. Both sides will start as underdogs, but pulling off an upset would take them one step closer to glory.
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