Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho is not making the mistake of taking the maligned League Cup’s final lightly. And neither should you.
England’s tertiary competition is held in scant regard. Think the FA Cup’s growing problems in regards to weakened sides and declining interest, but multiplied several times over.
Yet the Portuguese has never turned down the chance of silverware. He is fully aware of the fact his first stint at Chelsea was catalysed by success in a tournament whose 56-year history is detailed by similar points of ignition.
Several dynasties have sprung up following wins in it. He will be doing everything in his power to ensure a victory against Southampton is attained which can make his charges the latest member of this long line. With the FA Cup and Europa League still in play, inspiration for a charge towards a treble – albeit the same ‘plastic’ one attained by Liverpool in 2000/01 which is so derided by United fans – in the 54-year-old’s debut season at Old Trafford should be found at Wembley today.
Since the turn of the century, the League Cup has regularly been a bellwether. Mourinho’s first title was earned with 3-2 extra-time beating of Liverpool in 2004/05 – two Premier Leagues, another League Cup and an FA Cup were to follow before his abrupt exit in September 2008.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini engineered a 3-1 defeat of Sunderland in 2013/14 during his opening campaign at Manchester City, which preceded a charge to top-flight glory by nearly three months.
United have also felt the value of the winning feeling. February 2006’s 4-0 hammering of Wigan proved the dawn of a new era. Declining talisman Ruud van Nistelrooy was an unused substitute on a day in which the likes of Netherlands goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, France left-back Patrice Evra and Serbia centre-back Nemanja Vidic claimed a trophy in red for the first time. The tie also marked the ascendancy of Portugal icon Cristiano Ronaldo and now club-record scorer Wayne Rooney.
Such figures would provide the bedrock of a squad who would win the 2007/08 Champions League, five of the next seven Premier Leagues and two more League Cups by 2009/10.
Look back even further than Liverpool’s 2000/01 run and other precedents exist.
Many members of the Arsenal squad who epically claimed the 1988/89 First Division crown were present as an eight-year trophy drought was ended in the 1986/87 Littlewoods Challenge Cup’s – as it was then known – decider.
Go back almost another decade and the hallowed Nottingham Forest side who won the 1978/79 and 1979/80 European Cups plus the 1977/78 First Division got the taste for glory in March 1978’s contentious 1-0 victory against Liverpool.
There is no pretence that victory for United today taken in isolation will guarantee a campaign which suffered a stuttering start is viewed as a runaway success. Only qualification to the Champions League will truly suffice.
But this could mark the moment when the team dominated by record buy Paul Pogba and Swedish warrior Zlatan Ibrahimovic made indelible marks on Manchester and English football.
Opposition fans should not mock the Red Devils for celebrating if they prevail. The weight of history proves they should fear what comes next.
“Be careful what you wish for” has become a favourite refrain of many fans and pundits as a counter to Arsenal’s “Wenger Out” brigade.
Gunners supporters who think Arsene Wenger’s time is up point to their Premier League title failures, or crashing out of the Champions League after chastening defeats to Europe’s big boys, but fears that Arsenal could be even worse off if and when Wenger goes are more than justified.
For example, Manchester United have not looked like genuine title contenders in any of the four seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson led them to their most recent title in his final season. An Arsenal team entering the post-Wenger world on the back of even less success could possibly face an even bigger drop-off.
Here are four reasons why a new manager would struggle at Arsenal.
A LOSS OF IDENTITY
Wenger’s Arsenal is wedded to a philosophy in a way that even United couldn’t match. “The United Way” was simply a commitment to attacking, entertaining football, but the Arsenal equivalent is something much more specific. Perhaps no club, other than Barcelona, is tied to a distinct style as much as Arsenal.
Is there a manager who can stick to the same philosophy but improve upon it to turn Arsenal into serious title contenders? Looking around the world of football, it is hard to think of one. Fans have previously mentioned names such as Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe, but it would be tough to make the claim that Howe is likelier to lead Arsenal to a Premier League title than Wenger.
If there isn’t a manager who can fit in with the Arsenal philosophy, then bringing in a new manager would involve overhauling the way the team plays and implementing that big a change would take time. Someone like Diego Simeone, whose name has been on the lips of many an Arsenal fan, would be a radical departure from Wenger, and there’s no guessing as to how much time it would take for him to put his own philosophy in place.
A CASE OF INFRASTRUCTURE
It goes without saying that, after 21 years, Wenger’s influence at the club goes beyond simply managing the first team. The Frenchman has full control over transfers and is heavily involved in the academy but modern management is no longer like that. Most clubs now operate with the structure of having one person manage the squad, another responsible for transfers and an entirely different team to look after commercialism, youth setups, scouting and even training.
The argument could be made that Arsenal should already have a sporting director, both as a way of reducing the burden on Wenger and to make the succession smoother. But even if Arsenal choose not to hire a sporting director while Wenger’s around, they will almost certainly have to once he leaves, which means replacing Wenger involves hiring more people than just the manager, and widespread change across the board.
SQUAD OVERHAUL AIN’T A WALK IN THE PARK
It is natural that a new manager arriving at a club looks to mould the team in his image. But, as we’ve seen plenty of times, when too many changes are made to a squad, it takes time for all the players to get used to playing with each other. Given that what Arsenal fans want is that their side immediately challenges for league titles, that sort of time is a luxury an incoming manager might not have.
Even if a new manager wants to implement changes slowly, there’s no guarantee that such an approach would work. Many of Arsenal’s players are fiercely loyal to Wenger, largely because he was as fiercely loyal in return. There have been plenty of mumblings that Mesut Ozil, for example, may look for a move if Wenger’s no longer at the club. The feeling is likely a common one among Arsenal players – so what happens to the team’s performances if Wenger’s departure prompts a mass exodus?
A MATTER OF ATTRACTION
Along the same vein as the idea that players might depart if Wenger leaves, Arsenal may also struggle to attract transfer targets in the immediate post-Wenger era. Working with the Frenchman has been one of the key reasons many players have joined Arsenal, with Ozil and Alexis Sanchez being two of the most high-profile recent examples.
If Arsenal find a new manager, many players who would have considered a move to the Emirates Stadium to play under Wenger would begin to weigh other options more seriously. And if there is a dip in the team’s performances once Wenger leaves, that will make attracting new players even more tricky.
Although current holders Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain are the three favourites to lift the trophy at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff come May, Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus should definitely not be written off as they aim to go a step further than in 2015, when they were defeated by Barcelona in the final in Berlin.
Here are the five reasons on why the Juventus can win the Champions League…
1) AN AWESOME DEFENCE
When examining Juve’s results so far this season, what stands out is the numerous zeros on the opposition’s side of the scoreboard. The Bianconeri backline have only conceded 17 goals in Serie A and just twice in six Champions League fixtures; they have claimed 16 clean sheets in 34 games in all competitions, and have let in more than one goal on only four occasions.
Allegri’s side have the capability to force their opponents to play into tight areas with constant pressure and an impressive work-rate, which leads the other team to either produce an unsuccessful pass or to play the ball backwards. The Italian giants are well known to be effective when it comes to seeing matches out and even the best attackers in Europe find it hard to break down the stubborn defence.
2) DEPTH IN ATTACK
Along with an impenetrable backline, Juventus also boast a number of brilliant attacking players at the other end of the pitch, with a number of choices available for Allegri to utilise depending on how he sets his team up. A key strength of the side is certainly the goals, which can be produced in the blink of an eye.
Since leaving Real Madrid, Gonzalo Higuain has gone on to establish himself as one of the best forwards in Europe within the past few years, the Argentine bagging 19 goals in 25 league appearances this campaign. Also, the likes of Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic, who played a vital role to the club’s successful season last year, have contributed in the current campaign too.
3) A BETTER PLAN ‘B’
Allegri has lined up his team in 3-5-2, 4-2-3-1, and 4-3-3 formations so far this season, with the ability to play with different systems a real boon to Juve’s results. Possessing multiple options can only help Juventus in the long run as their back-three system has occasionally hindered the side’s attacking fluidity.
Since the introduction of the 4-2-3-1 towards the end of last month, Juventus have won seven games in all competitions, Allegri’s tactical acumen and intelligence paying off at the right time.
The change has allowed his team to prevent opponents from roaming into the final third from the wide areas and to be more dangerous in attack, with Mandzukic thriving in his new role as a left attacking midfielder.
4) DOMESTIC DOMINANCE
The current run of five consecutive Scudetto titles remains is impressive, but it is their recent Coppa Italia triumphs that bode well for the pursuit of Champions League glory. The Bianconeri have shown that they are experts at getting the job done in a two-legged knockout tie, as well as one-off finals now too. Juventus have proved that they are capable of grinding out the results when needed.
5) ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
After they returned to the top-flight in Italy, many predicted Juventus would struggle to find their feet in Serie A. But in the 2011-12 campaign they finished in first place and went the whole season undefeated. Since then, the Old Lady have exceeded all expectations and are now aiming to win a record sixth Scudetto in a row.
Their opponents have become more aware of what they are capable of, but the gameplan of Juventus has been increasingly hard to stop. The style is difficult to copy or challenge, with the team normally dominating possession from the start of the game and forcing players from the opposition to abandon the compact defensive shape that they are playing in.
It has been clear on a few occasions this campaign, and Juventus were not completely at ease when they were stopped from playing their natural style of play, for example in the 0-0 draw at home to Sevilla and Lyon in the Champions League group stages. However, the knockout rounds will return the favour back to them, as the sides that they are facing will want to dominate possession and aim to control the game.