PRESTIGE of the League Cup has dwindled in recent times, but this year’s final could mean the world to either Arsenal or Manchester City – for very different reasons.
Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola look to lift the trophy for the first time in their careers when they meet at Wembley on Sunday.
Both hugely respected coaches are licking their wounds – Wenger for a dramatic downturn that’s seen Arsenal trailing the top four by a considerable distance and Guardiola for an unexpected FA Cup exit to Wigan earlier this week.
Tasting silverware on Sunday – even if it is the neglected League Cup – could prove just the remedy for both men.
For Wenger, who is under real pressure to quit the Emirates at the end of the season, a Wembley win might just secure himself one last lifeline during one of the worst seasons under his two-decade watch.
The cries for change in North London have now gone beyond moans and groans on the terraces. After a series of hugely disappointing defeats to top-four rivals that’s left Arsenal languishing in the league, many of the Gunners faithful would walk a thousand miles to see the back of a man they fear risks leading the club to lower, uncharted territory.
But to win on Sunday, Wenger will have to stop the rot of miserable performances against ‘big six’ cubs in the Premier League this term.
Arsenal have taken a measly six points from a possible 24 against their big rivals in the league compared to Manchester City’s 15 from 18. Wenger’s men nicked two draws against Chelsea, a 3-3 thriller against Liverpool and went wild with a 2-0 win over Spurs at the Emirates. But it hasn’t been enough.
In fact, Arsenal have won the smallest share of potential points from head-to-head meetings this season against fellow top-six clubs with just 25 per cent. It makes them the worst of the bunch.
Their only solace heading into Sunday is their recent record in cup semi-finals and finals at the Home of Football. Three FA Cup wins in four years is an incredible feat and not to be sniffed at – their most recent last year included a victory over City in the semi-final at Wembley.
With the financial resources at their disposal, City are understandably in much better nick than their London counterparts. Talk and buzz of an emphatic quadruple this season was flatlined this week after the Citizens were knocked out of the FA Cup by League One’s Wigan Athletic.
That disappointing defeat aside, City have set the Premier League alight this term with scintillating football and composed consistency. But their achievements go way beyond decent football with outstanding results. Pep Guardiola has shown it is not just about money spent through the transformation of players like Raheem Sterling.
Eyebrows were raised when City splashed the cash – some £50million – on Sterling in 2015. The former QPR man made his name in Liverpool’s SSS frontline – Suarez, Sterling and Sturridge – but that fell apart when hitman Luis left for sunnier shores in Barcelona. When City came calling with the big money, it couldn’t have been a hard decision for the England man to leave.
His career in Manchester got off to an unassuming start. In the 2016/2017 season Raheem was utilised in a wider role at the Etihad with Leroy Sane giving equal width on the opposite flank. This was likely because of City’s lack of quality full-backs (remember Kyle Walker had not yet arrived from Spurs) and a reliance on stretching teams across the pitch rather than going forward. A natural dribbler who likes to cut inside, Sterling frustrated a lot of fans with his habit of losing the ball too easily in the final third when trying to take players on and forcing a move.
Under Pep things changed, however. Sterling has been taught the art of passing and team play while magically linking up with the like of Sané, De Bruyne, and David Silva without conscious thought. From just seven Premier League goals in 34 starts last season, Raheem has already bagged 15 goals in just 25 starts this term – and you suspect there’s plenty more to come. Pep’s imported his tika-taka style to the north-west of England and Raheem has been central to that philosophy.
Yet while the odds are stacked in City’s favour this weekend, as the old saying goes, “anything can happen in a cup final”. City will particularly be conscious of their recent record against the Gunners, who have lost just twice to Manchester’s blue powerhouse in their last 11 meetings.
Questions too are left unanswered about their team selection on Sunday. With the Premier League and Champions League still in play for Pep’s men, will he be tempted to utilise his squad depth and give a few regulars a rest? Will tinkering with the squad affect its stability, cohesion and style of play?
The League Cup clearly doesn’t mean as much to clubs as it used to… but Sunday’s mouth-watering clash could prove a catalyst for greater things.
As Pep said earlier this week: “Nobody can take away what we’ve done so far. But I think it’s a big mistake just to be happy with that.
“We have to lift titles. Without them it’s not enough.”
All images sources from PA Images.